EDITOR’S NOTE — Information in this story was generated during a roundtable discussion of agriculture by officers and leaders of the Southern Crop Production Association during the group’s recent annual meeting.

The crop of 2009 will go down as one of the most trying on record for Southern farmers — how trying depends on cropping selection, input costs and weather, says Jeff Cassady with Bayer CropScience.

A number of distributors were stuck with high price fertilizer bought during the price run-up in 2008. And often from whom growers bought their N, P and K, and in what form, had a big influence on their input costs and profit margin.

For the most part 2009 was a good year for farmers and agribusiness, but a very trying one, Cassady says.

Cotton and peanut acreage continued to slide across the Southeast, leaving some to wonder whether these staple crops will ever regain former prominence.

“In North Carolina we have seen significant losses in cotton, tobacco and peanut acreages over the past few years,” says Tom Hunt, executive director of the Crop Protection Association of North Carolina.

“We have also seen dramatic diversification in agriculture in our state — much of it due to the tobacco buyout program. And, we have seen many producers move to value-added businesses like roadside stands and Internet marketing of their farm products,” Hunt adds.

North Carolina, Virginia and Florida are among the leaders nationally in amount of farm land that is lost each year to urbanization and to industrial development. Diversification and flexibility in cropping systems are critical to farmers across the region maintaining current high levels of quality, plus increasing yield of their crops to compensate for the continued loss of farm land.

North Carolina is a prime example of some of the indirect effects of the loss of agriculture land. Hunt says population shifts in the Tar Heel state over the past few years have created a population base in which 12 or 13 out of 100 counties virtually control the state legislature.

Mary Hartney, president of the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association says a study in her state shows by the year 2050 urbanization will create a dramatic shortage of farm land. In previous years dramatic growth in Florida has generally been near the coast — not the case in the next 50 years, she contends.

Despite the projected loss in farm land, Cassady says Southern farmers have shown the ability to adapt to new cropping systems and to apply technology to increase productivity across a variety of crops.

Peanuts are a good example. How many acres will be lost in production this year is still not settled — perhaps as much as 35 percent. However, increases in technology usage keeps pushing peanut yields upward, negating some of the market stability gained from reducing acreage.

The dramatic increase in cotton yield with new varieties from a number of seed companies has likewise greatly offset the loss in cotton acreage. For example, Deltapine’s Class of 09 varieties have the potential to push yield averages in the Southeast up by a hundred pounds per acre. The Class of 10 varieties are projected to provide even more of a yield bump. It is conceivable within a few years that Southeastern growers could average a bale per acre more cotton than they currently produce.

Diversification of crops in the Southeast is likely to occur more from geographic region to region, rather than across a specific farm, the group agrees. In the Southeast, growers have many more options for crops than growers do in other areas of the country.

“The high cost of harvesting equipment will likely restrict individual farmers from diversification to meet marketing trends, but across the whole region, we are likely to see more and more diversification,” the group says.

Precision agriculture is becoming a bigger part of Southeastern agriculture and is critical to future growth, says Jason Nelson, a district sales manager in the Southeast for Dow AgroSciences. “Larger acreage farmers have been among the first to adopt the use of GPS-guided equipment, variable rate application and yield monitors. As more and more farmers see the results of technology positively identified using yield monitors, we are likely to see the rapid spread of this technology across the region,” Nelson adds.

“It is a common misconception that agri-chemical companies want growers to use more and more product. In reality we want farmers to use our products more efficiently, making them more profitable and keeping their business based on this success,” says Michael Boden, head of Syngenta’s Southern Field Crops Business Unit.

Getting messages across like the efficient use of technology and the safe use of technology in food production processes is critical to continued freedom of use of these products, the group agrees.

Farmers have to be aware of public opinion of how they use farm chemicals and how vital the use of these materials is to our food supply. And perhaps most importantly to the general public, how these materials are used safely and with little threat to the environment.

“Public opinion can be swayed so easily and more often on emotion rather than science. A lot of what organizations like the Southern Crop Production Association do is to help farmers and agri-business bring public opinion back in line with the use of good research and good science,” says Pete Irwin, president of SCPA and an executive with BASF Corporation.

“We know our industry will have to double food production worldwide in the next 50 years to feed our growing population. Using the technology we have today, we simply can’t meet that goal,” Irwin says.

“Each of us has the responsibility to talk to everyone, not just to people involved in agriculture, and stick to the facts and stay away from the emotional side of what our industry does,” Boden says.

“Organizations far removed from agriculture are constantly in need of speakers, and we have a vested interest to keep these people aware of the realities of agriculture and food production,” he adds.

“Too often agriculture is taken for granted, and we have the opportunity to prevent that from happening by being a part of professional organizations and by providing science-based information that conveys the message of agriculture,” Cassady concludes.

email: rroberson@farmpress.com