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Sunday, June 18, 2000
Last modified at 5:58 p.m. on Friday, June 16, 2000
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South Plains earth yields a cornucopia of cash crops

First-time visitors to the Hub City are always amazed at the agricultural diversity offered by the area.

Whether it's cotton, which leads the list of the commodities produced, or other crops such as grain sorghum, corn, peanuts, vegetables and grapes, the South Plains is a major player in the agricultural industry, both in Texas and across the country.

To that impressive list can be added millions of head of custom-fed cattle, which gives Texas the distinction of being the number one feeding state in the country.

So important is cotton to the economy, roughly 25 percent of the nation's crop is produced on the High Plains, sometimes dubbed "the largest cotton patch in the world." Of all the cotton grown in Texas, some 56 percent is produced on the High Plains.

The crop and its related industries accounts for what some say is a $10 billion boost for the area when the impact of more than 3 million bales of cotton produced locally is felt throughout the economy.

Not only is the area an outstanding leader in agricultural production, but it's also a center for research by state and federal agencies. Research endeavors by Texas Tech, the International Textile Center, USDA Plant Stress Laboratory and the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center all play a vital role in scientific projects.

Locally, businesses related to agriculture add significantly to the areas economy. Lubbock is home to one of the largest cotton seed oil mills in the nation, as well as related industries such as gins, mills, compresses and financial support institutions.

In addition to just the local economy, the reverberations of cotton's importance is felt throughout the area, which has a number of gins, oil mills, a major denim plant and several processing facilities, which produce cotton fabric for clothing, oil for food preparation, cotton seed meal for animal feed, liners for upholstery and papers and plastics from the seed.

In all, some 3.5 million acres of cotton is grown in the 25-county area served by Plains Cotton Growers. Production ranges from 2.5 to 3.5 million bales each year.

An average bale contains about 480 pounds of cotton lint, which produces enough fiber to produce either 215 pairs of men's jeans, or 543 work shirts, or 906 woven sport shirts, or 1,217 men's T-shirts, or 1,918 cotton work gloves, or 3,557 mid-calf socks or 8,347 handkerchiefs.

For the women's wardrobe, a bale of cotton contains enough fiber to produce 274 dresses, or 379 sweaters, or 409 skirts, or 733 pairs of shorts, or 4,321 mid-calf socks, or 6,436 pairs of knit panties or 21,960 handkerchiefs.

Even the little one in the family is a cotton consumer. After all, the fiber from one bale of cotton can be used to make 3,085 baby diapers.

Grain sorghum has historically been one of the major cereal crops used for food for thousands of years, with its origin traced to Africa and India.

While grain sorghum plants initially were tall and very susceptible to lodging, as well as difficult to harvest, breeding has vastly improved what's available today to South Plains and other growers, some of whom produce yields in the 12,000-pound per acre neighborhood.

The High Plains has increased in acres, yields and utilization of grain sorghum during the past 60 years, especially where irrigation is available. The High Plains is a leading area for sorghum seed, producing 90 percent of U.S. and 35 percent of world seed production.

Corn, another multi-faceted crop, became a fixture on the South Plains back in about 1960 when greenbug infestations struck the area's grain sorghum production. The outbreak of insects prompted many farmers to begin looking at corn as an alternative crop, especially where irrigation water was abundant.

One of the more versatile grains produced anywhere, corn and related products is a basic ingredient in everything from adhesives and dry cell batteries to oil field drilling mud and protective colloids.

More than half of the state's corn crop, approximately 650,000 bushels, is grown in the Panhandle/South Plains. It's estimated that corn contributes more than one billion dollars to the area economy.

Although it does need plenty of irrigation water, especially when Mother Nature doesn't provide sufficient moisture, corn is a mainstay in a number of South Plains counties, with Castro leading the list of top producers.

With corn and grain sorghum readily available, custom cattle feeders began migrating from California to the High Plains, constructing massive facilities that helped push Texas to the number one ranking in the nation in terms of the number of fed animals produced.

Fed cattle marketings in the area topped 5.1 million head in 1998, creating employment for more than 2,200 employees and an annual payroll of $45 million. In the 21 counties of the Llano Estacado Regional Water Planning Area, there are more than 65 feedyards that marketed about 3.4 million fed cattle in 1998.

In addition to the usual meat, hides, tallow and other products traditionally associated with fed beef, the animals also help humans by providing carotid arteries for transplantation, lungs to help an anti-coagulant to treat blood clots and a number of other medically-related items.

Relatively new to the South Plains is peanut production, which has moved to the area from Central Texas because of soil disease problems. An increasing number of growers are trying peanuts, especially if they have sufficient irrigation water and enough land to rotate with other crops.

It's estimated that peanuts are being produced in Texas this year on 325,000 acres, down slightly from the 1999 season. Gaines County, with 245,856,000 total pounds of production last year, led the list in Texas, followed by Terry, Dawson and Yoakum counties.

To put it in perspective, a typical High Plains peanut crop will produce about 4,000 pounds per acre. That translates into 20,000 jars of peanut butter per acre.

A number of other crops such as guar, sunflowers and soybeans are grown in the area, especially on failed cotton acreage.

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