RAEFORD — As autumn’s crisp air replaces summer’s heat, the fields of Hoke County undergo their seasonal transition. The county’s cotton fields transform as white bolls are harvested and rolled into large bales, awaiting transport to local gins. Throughout North Carolina, cotton farming stands as a symbol of both tradition and change.
Historically known for its livestock, Hoke’s farmers have diversified their agricultural portfolio to include corn, peanuts, soybeans, sweet potatoes, and cotton. This shift reflects a broader trend in North Carolina’s farming sector, where adaptation and diversification are key to sustainability.
Farmers like Marvin McDonald, his son Daniel, and veteran Johnny Boyles are at the forefront of this evolving landscape. They navigate the complexities of a crop deeply intertwined with the global economy. Marvin McDonald, who transitioned to cotton farming in 1989, was driven by the need for financial sustainability amid fluctuating grain markets. “Cotton farming is not just about growing a crop; it’s about understanding and adapting to market trends,” he says.
Daniel McDonald, set to continue the family legacy, stresses the importance of public awareness and appreciation for the impact that farmers and agriculture have on every citizen. “Many don’t realize where their food comes from,” said McDonald. “They see farming, but they don’t understand the challenges and hard work involved.” He says a commitment to educating the public and encouraging the next generation’s involvement in farming is vital for the industry’s future.
Johnny Boyles, with four decades in farming, joined the McDonalds to discuss Hoke County’s cotton crops with the North State Journal last week. Boyles reflected on the shift from tobacco to cotton as his entry into the cotton industry. “Tobacco was once the mainstay, but cotton has proven more sustainable and less controversial,” said Boyles. “It’s about adapting to the times and the market.” Boyles also pointed to technological advancements that have transformed cotton farming. “The industry has evolved, but the essence of farming – resilience and hard work – remains unchanged,” he adds.
The global cotton industry is significant to the world economy, with major producers like the United States, India, China, and Brazil shaping the market. The U.S. remains a key exporter, with states like Texas, Georgia, and Mississippi leading in production. The international supply chain of cotton, stretching from cultivation to textile manufacturing, involves countries like China and Bangladesh, requiring stable trade relations to maintain practices and production.
In North Carolina, the major players in cotton production are concentrated in the northeast of the state. Counties like Halifax (95,000 bales), Northampton (71,400 bales), Bertie (70,000 bales), Martin (56,000 bales), Edgecombe (47,500 bales), and Hertford (34,000 bales) lead in production. While Hoke County doesn’t rank among these top producers, its agricultural diversity, including row crops and livestock, provides a buffer against market volatility, strengthening the local economy and contributing to the resilience of the state’s agricultural sector.
Farmers in Hoke County face challenges like fluctuating market prices, weather, and evolving consumer demands as part of the broader industry. The value of global and state cotton economies underscores the crop’s significance. The U.S. is a leading cotton producer, with an estimated annual production value exceeding $6 billion. In North Carolina, the state ranks sixth nationally in cotton production.
The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture cotton projections for 2023 show China accounts for nearly half of global cotton stocks, with India, Brazil, and the United States combining for an additional 25 percent. World cotton production is forecast at 112.6 million bales in 2023, 3.2 percent below the previous year, as the global yield is projected to decrease, while the global cotton trade is projected to rise 17 percent in 2023-24.
Hoke County farmers like the McDonald family are committed to the future of global crops like cotton and hope the demand and innovation help keep them in business. Recognizing their position as part of a larger supply chain, Daniel McDonald said, “I just hope that textiles and things can improve around this area so we can continue to afford to do it.”