Every year brings different challenges to the nation's farmers, and 2004 is no different. Among the challenges this year are production costs that are drastically different from those in 2003.

Delton Gerloff, an economist with the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, says farmers in the 2004 planting season are facing fuel and fertilizer prices that are certain to go up.

“The fuel prices have increased 23 percent over 2003 prices,” Gerloff says. Compared to last year, the economist says the fuel costs will add between $1 and $1.50 per acre to the expense of growing corn, depending on the tillage system. The increased fuel prices will add between $1 and $2 per acre to soybean expenses, and about $1.50 per acre for wheat production expenses. Gerloff expects cotton fuel expenses to increase between $3 to $4 per acre.

Fuel prices, however, don't tell the whole story. “Nitrogen fertilizer prices generally increase along with fuel prices. Higher nitrogen fertilizer prices would impact corn and cotton more than soybeans because soybeans generally don't require nitrogen fertilization,” Gerloff says.

Depending on the nitrogen source, nitrogen fertilizer prices have risen between 35 and 45 percent compared to 2003. Gerloff says this increase could add as much as $12 to $16 per acre to the expense of growing corn in 2004, and could increase cotton expenses as much as $10 to $12 per acre over last year. “Other fertilizer prices have also risen over the past year, with phosphate and potash prices rising close to 27 percent and 13 percent respectively,” he says.

Higher output prices are helping to reduce the impact of the higher input prices. “Based on early season price expectations in 2003 and April 1, 2004, harvest cash contract prices, corn and soybean net returns are projected to increase over $70 per acre compared to 2003,” Gerloff says. “Wheat net returns would be expected to increase close to $20 per acre compared to income expectations last year,” he says.

While cotton prices rose sharply last fall, Gerloff says current income expectations for cotton have not changed significantly from last year.

The bottom line is price, however. “While the fuel and fertilizer price increases are certain because the farmers are currently buying them to produce this year's crops, it remains to be seen if grain prices will remain at current levels until this fall's harvest,” Gerloff says.

The economist cautions producers to consider locking in higher harvest time grain prices to offset the increased input expenses.