EARLY clues about cotton crop are becoming positive in Punjab, creating hopes that the predicted output losses may become less and less, and the province might actually touch the target of 10.5 million bales.
Even if the target is missed, the gap may not be as wide as feared till mid-June — this would, of course, happen barring any major weather mishap and more crucially price manipulation.
Till last month, water had been a major problem. The cotton sowing, which had to suffer three-weak delay in wheat harvesting to begin with, was further stalled with water shortages touching a whopping 50 per cent. Both these factors forced over 75 per cent crop in the late sowing category.
To make matters worse, many farmers in the southern and central parts of Punjab opted for alternative crops. Sunflower replaced cotton in the south and maize found a huge area in the central Punjab. These factors led to pessimism about the crop this season.
But events in the last one month have retrieved the situation a bit. To begin with, no rains during March and April have now turned into a blessing in disguise. Rains cause crust formation on the surface, blocking germination and forcing farmers to re-sow the crop.
Since there were no rains, the crop escaped re-sowing disaster.
The possibility of re-sowing was the biggest threat this year because of non-availability of certified seed. There was only five per cent of certified seed available — 3,200 tons against a requirement of 60,000 tons — in the first place. Since farmers use the best possible seed during first sowing, re-sowing could have been a big disaster — a possibility, which the crop has now escaped.
Secondly, there has been no pest attack on the crop so far. According to the latest departmental data, only 3.5 per cent of it is under the curl leave cotton virus (CLCV) so far. Though it is more than last year’s 2.5 per cent, it is still negligible.
With the monsoon showers started, ( by the time you read this piece), the plant will now not only be out of the water stress but would become much more vigorous, and do so quickly. These rains would also wash other pests away, allowing the crop much needed breathing space. The pest pressure is less, with minor and sporadic attack of jassid reported from some areas.
Luckily, the fertiliser prices have behaved, at least so far. Because of the failure to apply enough of it for wheat sowing and late imports have created a glut in the market and prices have actually come down a bit — ranging from Rs100 to Rs200 per bag.
It is not to suggest they have come in the fiscal reach of the farmers, but only to claim that they are a bit better than what they were two to three months ago. Availability is also not a problem. Thus, the crop would only benefit on the fertiliser front.
The farmers, who had suffered because of low wheat prices this year, are now tending the crop much better — because that seems to be their hope for some recovery.
Wheat did not bring officially declared prices this year to most farmers for most of the procurement period. If farmers bodies are to be believed, average price remained at least Rs150 less than official price of Rs1,050 per 40Kg. Thus, cotton is emerging as their next hope for some income.
Recent reports from the field suggest increased interest of farmers. Precisely for this interest, Punjab has achieved 93 per cent of its acreage target (of 6.2 million acres), which was stuck at 80 per cent till late June.
Despite these hopeful signs, the crop is still not totally out of blue. Beyond weather, two man-made factors — prices and behaviour of the industry — will largely decide the final size of the crop. Both of them are inter-dependent.
The prices of early arrival in the market don’t cause much optimism.
They are hovering around Rs2,700 per 40Kg. They touched Rs3,100 figure for a day or two, but slided back quickly. No one is expecting them to touch the level of previous year when they shot beyond Rs5,000, but one hopes that the industry does not let the prices fall unrealistically. One hopes that the industry takes long-term view of the crop and keeps prices at a reasonable level.
If the industry turns negative, farmers would lose interest in cotton crop quickly and look for alternatives next year — damaging the long-term prospects of the crop.