Maybe Cole Bailey III will continue the tradition of planting a pumpkin patch for his children. Maybe he won't have to leave the farm for a more stable way to make a living.

For now, however, economic concerns have not entered Cole's mind, since the youngster is not even a year old. But his father, 33-year-old Coley Bailey Jr. thinks about it a lot. He even talked to President Bush about it, in a five minute face-to-face earlier this year in Canton, Miss.

The meeting was arranged by Bill Hawks, a month before he resigned his post as USDA's undersecretary of agriculture for marketing and regulatory programs.

“He called one Thursday morning and said the president was coming to Mississippi the following week and wanted a young farmer to talk to about individual retirement accounts.”

The meeting took place at noon with the president discussing his plan for private Social Security investments with five Mississippians. “I figured they would tell us what to say, but it was strictly off the cuff,” Bailey said. “There was no practice or anything. Of course, he was promoting his Social Security plan. I knew that I couldn't bring up the Doha Round or CAFTA.”

Bailey acquitted himself well.

“I'm a cotton farmer,” Bailey said to President Bush, when asked what he did for a living.

“Cotton farmer,” the president said.

“Yes, sir,” Bailey replied.

“You're probably going to tell me the cotton prices aren't high enough and the weather is not any good,” the president said.

“That's exactly what I was going to say,” Bailey said, as the crowd laughed.

Bailey went on to discuss the current Social Security situation with the president and the impact it might have on Bailey's long-term future.

“You got any kids?” the president asked.

“Yes, sir. My wife, Jody, is here in the audience. We've got two children, our daughter, Mackenzie, is four; and my son, Cole, is four months old.”

“Well, so why is a farmer sitting up here talking about Social Security?

“Well, my concern with it is there won't be any Social Security for my wife and me when we reach retirement age.”

The president nodded, then talked about the additional hardships the self-employed face in funding Social Security. Bailey listened and then told the president what he's done to protect himself and his wife against a potential shortfall in the program, including their investment in Roth individual retirement accounts.

It was a short exchange, and Bailey made two or three important points. If he had had more time, he would have told the president how much he loved producing cotton. “I've wanted to do this forever,” Bailey said during a recent interview. “My dad never even tried to talk me out of it. He told me that it was going to be hard and there will be times when you wished you had done something else.”

The future is uncertain for young cotton producers like Bailey, and not just for Social Security. Changes in the farm bill are imminent, and farming's economic stability, suddenly shaky. “We based our plans on getting through to 2007, like going to 12-row equipment and making equipment purchases,” said Bailey, concerned that the current farm bill could be significantly changed before 2007.

He's also worried about what will replace it, and how he may have to respond. “I love cotton, but I'm 33 years old. I'm still young enough that I can do something else if I want to, before it's too late. I just hope I can recognize it when it comes.”

Stark words coming from the front line — young cotton producers who are passionate about finding new ways to increase efficiency and yield, but are decidedly skeptical about their future.

Bailey, who received Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation's Young Farmer and Rancher Achievement Award for 2001, wants to keep cotton on the farm. “But then again, I don't want to jeopardize my family and everything that we've all worked hard to grow over the last 70 years on this farm.”

Bailey's grandfather, Joe Bailey, started the farm in the 1930s. “My dad, Coley Bailey, graduated from Mississippi State University in 1972 and he came home to the farm. I graduated from MSU in 1994 and came here to farm. At that time, I worked for the corporation. After my grandfather died in 1996, I bought his part of the farm from my grandmother.”

Bailey wants a place in the family farm's long history of cotton production, and wants to pass the opportunity to farm along to his children. “Cotton is what we love, but we want to be able to compete.”

As a hobby, Bailey raises four acres of pumpkins a few hundred yards from the farm office, “for my little girl's kindergarten class. They come and pick their own. They love it. It's fun to watch the kids in the field.”

Hopefully, it's a tradition that young Cole III will carry on one day.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com