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Kansas farmers are planting more cotton as climate change redraws agricultural maps

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

When you think of rural Kansas, you might picture fields of golden wheat or cattle grazing on open pastures. You probably don't think of cotton. But as David Condos of the Kansas News Service reports, farmers in southwest Kansas are increasingly planting cotton as climate change makes it more possible.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Around 90% of all the land in Kansas goes toward agriculture, and a lot of that land grows the same few crops. If you put together all the state's corn fields, it would cover nearly 9,000 square miles. That's the size of New Hampshire. All the wheat fields alone in Kansas could just about blanket Maryland and Delaware combined. But increasingly, some Kansas farmers are diversifying. Farmer Andy Moser has planted cotton on his land in southwest Kansas for the past five years.

ANDY MOSER: The old guys just want to grow corn or just want to grow what they're used to. And young guys, sometimes, we got to take some risks.

CONDOS: So far, his risks seem to be paying off. Cotton prices are now the highest they've been in a decade. And cotton has some other benefits. It's drought-resistant and needs just a small fraction of the water that corn needs. And that's a big deal in southwest Kansas, where water supplies are drying up. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of cotton acres statewide jumped twelvefold.

RICKY ROBERTSON: To me, that's actually good news in the midst of a bad situation.

CONDOS: Ricky Robertson with the International Food Policy Research Institute says cotton's move into Kansas illustrates a broader trend as climate change redraws agricultural maps across the country.

ROBERTSON: We need to be open to trying new things - new crops, new rotations, new planting dates, the works.

CONDOS: In this case, hotter weather in Kansas opens the door for farmers to plant something that's traditionally grown south of here, and Robertson says those adaptations could help farming regions maintain their productivity, at least in the short term. And as Kansas cotton farming expands, so does the infrastructure that supports it. At the Northwest Cotton Growers Co-op in the town of Moscow, Michael Cutchins pries open a small door on a giant metal box. Inside, sunlight glistens off hundreds of spikes.

MICHAEL CUTCHINS: So all of them spike cylinders, we're turning them approximately 1,200 RPMs, and that's what we're using to bust all this up with.

CONDOS: For the crops that show up at the only cotton gin in western Kansas, this machine is just the first stop.

CUTCHINS: So after we leave the gin stand, our...

CONDOS: In the next room, a towering maze of industrial dryers and saw blades tear, heat and clean the cotton until only white lint remains lint. The co-op recently spent $13 million on this gin to prepare for what it hopes is a wave of future cotton harvests. And with room to expand, Cutchins says it could handle as much cotton as Kansas farmers could grow.

CUTCHINS: Everything's there. We're just waiting on the acres.

CONDOS: But convincing farmers to actually plant those acres with cotton can still be a challenge at times. For farmers who have grown corn and wheat for generations, trying this unfamiliar crop feels like a big risk. Jennifer Hewitt with the co-op in Moscow understands some farmers' reluctance.

JENNIFER HEWITT: It's not just, oh, let's throw some seed in the ground. You're going to spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to try something new, and it's extremely scary.

CONDOS: So she's holding meetings with farmers around the state to help them get more familiar with the crop. But she knows that changing the culture here will take time, maybe even generations.

HEWITT: It seems like the No. 1 reason we hear is, well, grandpa says no.

CONDOS: But as the younger generation of farmers takes over, she expects attitudes and acres to keep shifting in cotton's direction. For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Moscow, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.