I joined Farm Press Publications at the end of the 1980 drought. Some would say it's been downhill for agriculture ever since — at least until 2003.

The 1980 drought was one of the most damaging weather systems to ever hit the southern United States. For more than a month, temperatures soared above 100 degrees daily and not a drop of rain fell in the Mid-South region.

The drought finally ended with a torrential downpour in mid-August. I remember the storm contained a cell that dumped 18 inches of rain in the downtown area of Hughes, Ark., in a two- or three-hour period.

In the years since, it seems like farmers have struggled with one bad crop after another. When they had decent growing conditions, prices fell, or, in the case of a dry year like 2001, yields and futures prices plummeted. Then came 2003.

In 2003, for the first time in two decades, farmers enjoyed the best of both worlds — good crops and better prices. It wasn't just for one or two crops — prices are up for nearly every major row crop grown in the Sun Belt. And, if a farmer had managed to hang onto a few cows from the bust years in the cattle market, things were looking pretty good until a diseased cow wandered across the border from Canada.

Here are some figures from the Mid-South states:

  • USDA predicts Arkansas will harvest 909 pounds of cotton per acre or 32 pounds above the record set in 1994.
  • Louisiana was expected to pick 895 pounds per acre, the highest yield on record. Total production is forecast at 970,000 bales, an increase of 31 percent from 2002.
  • Missouri's yield is pegged at 849 pounds per acre, just seven pounds below the 1994 record.
  • Mississippi State University agricultural economists are estimating the value of the cotton crop in their state at $780 million, a whopping 78 percent increase from the previous year. Mississippi's 916-pound-per-acre yield forecast for 2003 would also be a record.
  • Tennessee's is forecast at 772 pounds — nine pounds above the 2001 record.

After a cold start in the upper half of the Delta, growing conditions were nearly ideal for cotton, according to Will McCarty, Extension cotton specialist in Mississippi. But weather wasn't the whole story.

“Ninety-seven percent of Mississippi's cotton is planted in transgenic varieties,” he said. “In 1995, zero percent of our cotton was planted in these. Very little of our cotton was grown in no-till or conservation tillage systems in the mid-90s; now more than 90 percent is.”

When you combine those two factors with the boll weevil eradication program that is now almost complete in Mississippi, you have the ingredients for a crop that averaged close to 200 pounds above its five-year average.

Can farmers do it again in 2004? McCarty believes farmers are at a point where they can move their five-year production trends up another notch.

Whatever happens, farmers are looking forward to a new season with more anticipation than they have in a long time.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com