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Autumn-time, and the cotton is high

Despite a bumper crop of cotton in North Carolina, falling prices spell trouble for area cotton farmers.

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FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — North Carolina is one of the nation's top cotton producers, and in the past year, the state has gone from one of the worst crops ever to one of the best.

"It's the best crop we've had in a long time," said Kenneth Lewis, who grows cotton in northern Cumberland County. "Last year's crop was a dud."

The state's record drought last year ravaged the cotton crop. Statewide, 490,000 acres produced 783,000 bales of cotton, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

This year, although overall production dropped to 730,000 bales, yields have jumped from 767 to 800 pounds per acre, according to the USDA.

The number of acres planted in cotton in North Carolina has been falling sharply in recent years. In 2005, there were close to 900,000 acres.

Lewis said he and his fellow cotton farmers in the Piedmont were lucky to get 400 pounds an acre last year. Now, he said, yields and the quality of the cotton have soared.

"When (the cotton) opens, (sunshine) keeps it bright, and the strength is good on it," he said.

Autumn is when cotton is harvested and packed into three-ton blocks, called modules, to be taken to a gin. There, it is dried out and seeded before being sold.

The bumper crop won't spin a financial bonanza for farmers, though. Since last spring, the price of cotton has dropped by about half, to 44 cents a pound.

Farmers said a glut on the world market for cotton has pushed prices down. They also blamed a cooling economy in the U.S. for shrinking demand.

"Even with the kind of yields we're having this year, you need at least 70 cents (per pound to break even)," said Allen Hudson, who runs Quality Gin Co. outside Dunn.