FOR a decade there wasn't enough water. Now cotton grower Matt Norrie's dams are full, prices are up and a bumper year is expected.
Mr Norrie hasn't seen conditions this good since 1999 when he was still at school, he told The Australian.
The confidence, investment and growth that fled the industry during the drought years are back, a change most graphically illustrated by the staggering 93 per cent rise in cotton exports forecast for this season.
The value of those exports is expected to grow by 65 per cent compared with last year to about $2.2 billion, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics and Sciences.
Production of lint - processed raw cotton - is expected to rise by 27 per cent.
In its agricultural commodities report for the December quarter, ABARES attributed this year's record-breaking expected cotton harvest of close to five million bales to abundant irrigation water in almost all dams servicing cotton-producing regions, adequate soil moisture and a favourable cotton price.
Mr Norrie, a third-generation mixed farmer with an 1800ha property near Narrabri in northern NSW, said: "Now we know that we're going to grow a crop this year, next year and the year after, and that's security that we haven't had since I was at school.
"There's a lot of confidence in the industry and a lot of investment that we just haven't had."
Phill Ryan, senior vice-chairman of the Australian Cotton Shippers Association, said it was "a big turnaround from the lean times we had six or seven years ago".
But, such is the fickle nature of farming, growers are starting to fret that the La Nina-induced wet summer could dump so much rain it will wreak havoc on their crops.
The possibility of Europe sinking into a fresh financial crisis could put a further dampener on the industry.
La Nina, the Pacific climatic phenomenon that brought much of the rainwater now coursing through Australia's rivers, can also wreak havoc with farmers' crops.
Flooding in the Gwydir Valley near the town of Moree, about 110km north of Narrabri, has already damaged more than 18,000ha of crops in the cotton-growing region in recent months, at an estimated cost of $52 million, according to the Gwydir Valley Cotton Growers' Association.
"Cotton may be a lot safer than some other crops, but it's still at the mercy of mother nature," Mr Norrie said.
"The difference between a dry harvest and a wet harvest can be anywhere up to $150 per bale."
The cost of cotton production is typically about $350 a bale, and $500 a bale is considered a good price. Farmers typically need three to four dry weeks in May to get their crop off.
Economic jitters in Europe and elsewhere are also dampening demand for clothing in key Western markets, causing Chinese mills to cut their inventory, which in turn puts downward pressure on the cotton price, according to Rabobank analyst Tracey Allen.
"Cotton is different to some other commodities in that it's not a necessary good," she said.
"You can always put on the T-shirt and socks from last season."
ABARES predicts global cotton supply will exceed demand next year.
One factor likely to benefit local growers is that Texas, which normally produces more cotton than Australia, has just had one of its worst seasons, according to Jernigan Commodities managing director Ed Jernigan.
The US, which normally produces 18 million to 19 million bales annually, last year produced 15.9 million.
The drought in the southern US is in part due to La Nina.
"Australian producers are going to have the opportunity to fill that void left by the US," Mr Jernigan said.
Australian producers will have to compete with those in emerging countries such as Brazil and China, but so far we, like the Texans, have a better reputation for quality and getting the crop to market on time, analysts say.
Read more at The Australian.