2019 was good for cotton, bad for soybeans and tobacco in Virginia

Caroline County Virginia soybean field
A soybean field in Caroline County. (Sarah Vogelsong/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Virginia farmers last year saw big bumps in cotton thanks to favorable weather, but soybeans and tobacco suffered as a result of the China-U.S. trade war.

The commonwealth produced 22 percent more cotton in 2019 than it did in 2018, according to numbers released by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service last Friday.

Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, attributed the uptick in cotton to more acres being planted and better weather compared to 2018, when yields were harmed by late tropical storms. 

More farmers in the agricultural southeastern part of the state may also have opted to plant cotton because of market uncertainty due to the trade war.

“You had people looking for alternatives to soybeans in 2019,” said Banks. 

That was evident in the numbers. Virginia farmers produced 19 million bushels of soybeans this year, 23 percent less than in 2018. With uncertainty about whether the crop could be profitably sold, many opted to plant other crops, resulting in 30,000 fewer acres of soybeans being planted in the commonwealth in 2019.

Weather also took a toll on the crop. In August, drought struck just as the soybean pods were maturing, driving down yields. 

Nationwide, poor growing weather for the lucrative legume may have helped keep prices high, said both Banks and VDACS Communications Director Elaine Lidholm. Besides southern drought, record flooding in the Midwest also damaged output.

“If we had had a good crop coupled with the China trade tariffs, soybean prices probably would be at a much lower level today,” said Lidholm in an email. “Growers held on to their soybeans throughout 2019 hoping for a trade deal. This kept some soybeans off the market and helped to support prices.”

Despite the declines, “overall the trend is still upwards” in soybean production, said Banks.

Downward trends continued for tobacco, with flue-cured production dropping 32 percent last year — a fall Banks attributed to both declines in overall consumption and China’s decision to exit the market.

“The primary buyer for tobacco that’s exported to China left the market,” he said. “They bought zero. There just weren’t contracts.”

Even amid a new trade deal with China announced this week, uncertainty about agricultural purchases lingers for farmers.