MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The profitability of Mid-South farming operations this year could rest more on what takes place off the farm than on it, according to farmers attending the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis. Indeed, vigilant farmers will be watching the markets, Asian soybean rust and the progress of proposed changes to farm programs as spring planting time approaches.

Jackson, County, Ark., farmer Roy Runyan had good crops in rice, soybeans, corn and wheat in 2004 “in yield and for rice, in milling. We had one of the best corn crops we’ve ever had. I don’t farm a lot of acres, but it’s an important crop. We market it directly to a feed mill in Newark, Ark.”

Soybean yields were good for the second year in a row, according to Runyan. “It kind of scares you because normally you wouldn’t have that good a luck. We have a lot of dryland fields.”

Runyan notes that many soybean producers sold their beans “a little too quick last year, even if they held them over. Now, the question is whether you should forward contract or not. Two years ago, everybody booked early and the market ran away. Last year, we didn’t book, and it went down.”

Runyan booked new crop beans on three occasions this year, “but I’m still under a $6 average. I’ve also purchased a few puts. But the marketing is a huge part of farming, and many of us are not very good at it. And we’re too stubborn or too thrifty to hire a consultant in that area.”

Runyan will be extra vigilant for diseases this year, especially with the possibility of Asian soybean rust spreading north. “The most distressing thing I’ve read is that it’s been found overwintering in Florida. That’s a bad place for it to start. I’m betting on the preparation that Extension has made to give us at least a decent warning when it’s getting close.”

To help out, Runyan has diverted his rice consultant to watch a few of the high-risk soybean fields. “The applications of fungicides is going to be tricky. Evidently the airplane is not the best choice, except it’s fast and doesn’t tromp down crops. Most of us drill beans, so I guess we’ll just run over them.”

Jerry Jones, farms corn, soybean and hay in Selmer, Tenn. His 2004 crops “didn’t turn out too well. We had too much rain on everything. We had a lot of damage on the soybeans. The corn blew down and we lost a lot of yield. Everything turned out pretty short.”

This was Jones’ first trip to the gin show since 1999. One reason he made the journey this year was because the ground back home is still too wet to work. The wet weather started in the spring of 2004 and hasn’t let up much since. “We were almost to Christmas before we finished harvesting.”

Alamo, Tenn., cotton producer Jimmy Hargett said his 2004 crop was a good one, but it was difficult to gather — the third toughest in 43 years. “Up to Oct. 15, it was the sweetest I’d ever seen. After that, it was about as bad as I’ve seen. It was raining every other day. We didn’t work much. We just sat there looking at it.”

For this season, Hargett will try to figure out “how to make these machines work in my operation, so I can harvest easier and more economically.”

Hargett is referring to a prototype of an on-board module builder he’ll be running again on his farm this year. The machine combines cotton harvesting and module-building capability into one machine, reducing equipment and labor costs by about 4 cents a pound, on average, according to Hargett.

Hargett was a driving force behind the development of the machine, which has stirred quite a bit of interest from the cotton community.

John Janes, who farms with his son, Tony, in Oak Grove, La., farms about 400 acres of rice, 1,400 acres of soybeans and 300 acres of corn. “Most of our crops did pretty well. I’ve run a combine since 1968, and I’ve never touched 70 bushels. We had a field average 71 bushels. Overall, we were in the 40-bushel range.”

He wishes he could have taken better advantage of pricing opportunities, however. “They tell us to market all the time. When beans got above $6, we went to lock in beans. By the time they got up to $8, we had already priced enough that we were stretching it. It’s hard to outguess the market.”

When asked about the potential for Asian soybean rust, Janes says he intends to make a preventive application of a fungicide between first bloom and early pod. But everybody, farmers, consultants, Extension, the experiment stations, are going to be looking for it. As soon as we hear that it’s close, we’re going to look to spray.”

Optimism is the farmer’s best friend each spring prior to planting, and not many wanted to dwell on possible implications of proposed changes to the farm bill. Bill Hawks, USDA undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs and a former Mississippi cotton producer, has faith that everything will work out for farmers.

“Secretary (Mike) Johanns is an extremely knowledgeable person and has a true love for agriculture. He grew up on a dairy farm and has a great desire to get out around the countryside and understand agriculture in other areas. He obviously has an open mind. He’s a very quick study.”

When asked if farm bill changes might be delayed until 2007, Hawks was noted, “I’m not sure about that. We support the president’s budget proposals. Secretary Johanns has been very upfront and honest about that. He’s a listener, but we absolutely support the proposals.

“He’s asked us to look for ways to insure the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture. We are doing that. We’re looking at all the sanitary/phyto-sanitary issues and harmonization of international standards to trade by. We’re working as hard as we can to make sure that we maintain that competitiveness.”

As to the loss on appeal to the Brazil decision concerning U.S. cotton subsidies, Hawks noted, “Those kinds of discussions should take place in international trade agreements rather than in court. Obviously, there will be an impact, and we will have to take those into consideration.

“I still believe that the U.S. farmer can compete with any farmer in the world, but he can’t compete with other governments. That’s one thing that President Bush and Secretary Johanns have consistently said. We want to make sure that we enforce trade agreements, hold our trading partners to the letter of the law. We’re intent on doing that.

“The U.S. farmer is the most innovative farmer anywhere in the world. There is no question about it.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com