Three things are on the minds of Mid-South farmers as they head into the 2002 planting season — the farm bill, cutting costs and when they'll be able to get into fields and plant.

Donald Bennett, who farms 450 acres of cotton in Stewart, Miss., is going with a minimum-till program to try to reduce labor and fuel costs. His wife, Jan, works three part-time jobs to help ends meet. The couple discussed their farming enterprises during the recent Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis.

“In 2000, heat and drought hit us hard. We didn't do much, about 300 pounds per acre,” Bennett said. “That hurt. Last year, we harvested about 800 pounds. For the hills, that's good. It paid off what we borrowed to live on.”

What motivates the family operation to stick with farming? According to Jan, who owns a small sewing business and is a pastor's secretary when she's not helping out on the farm, “He loves it. I love it. And you have to live on faith. You have to live on faith every day.”

Bennett, in his third year of farming on his own, has nearly 20 years of farming experience.

“Everything (with the farm bill) is up in the air right now,” says Westport, Tenn., farmer Philip Moore, who raises 3,600 acres of corn and soybeans. “With the prices, we're scared to contract, but we're scared not to. It's a wait-and-see game.”

Moore, who has been farming for 12 years with his father, is in a 50/50 corn/bean rotation and will stick with that this coming year.

To help make ends meet, Moore says, “We've trimmed everywhere we can trim, buying generic products whenever we can. We're watching closely, making sure the products will work. But we're down to the bare bones as it is. We have one part-time employee, and my wife helps when she can.”

Delaplaine, Ark., farmer Terry Gray, who raises 1,250 acres of rice and 250 acres of soybeans, is making a big change in his soybean program this year.

“We have some ground that I hope is going to dry out before my bottom rice ground. We want to plant the ground in Group IV irrigated beans in the middle of April.

Gray says the Group IVs “have so much more yield potential than the other maturities and if you get them planted early, you may have two or three fewer irrigations. You cut them quickly and you cut them on dry ground.”

Gray is working on the project with former Arkansas Extension soybean specialist Lanny Ashlock, who is now with Cullum Seeds, Inc., Fisher, Ark.

Gray will also plant a 10- to 15-acre test plot which will include a Clearfield rice hybrid. “It's going to be XL-8 with Clearfield resistance. It's going to be interesting to see these two technologies so young in their lives matched up so quickly.” Clearfield rice is tolerant to the herbicide Newpath.

As of early April, Gray was on go with his water-seeded rice. “If it looks like the forecast going into next week (the second week in April) is going to stay warm, I'll probably start planting. I'm itching to get something going.”

Cotton will be missing from Tunica, Miss., farmer Nolen Canon's crop mix in 2002. The producer raised 1,750 acres of the crop in 2001 with “pretty fair yields,” but he says the safety net is inadequate this time around.

“The trouble with cotton is where I have to plant it — on some heavier ground. The downside risk is fairly substantial. That's what I'm afraid of. It can really bust on you.

“USDA lowered the county t-yields and lowered the price that it's insuring,” Canon said. “Cotton doesn't have the coverage level it did last year. It's not enough for me to go back into it.”

Canon will now plant milo or soybean on the ground. “I was going to plant some corn there, and I'm still toying with the idea. But as the clock ticks, corn becomes less of an option. The ground is still wet, and I'm getting into a period where I want to plant rice and maybe some Group IV soybeans.”

The producer will plant about 2,200 acres of rice in 2002. “Almost all my rice will be drill-seeded. We start planting rice after April 1, weather permitting. Some of my ground will be ready to go early next week (April 8).”

In Louisiana, rice producers had planted 36 percent of their rice crop headed into the first week in April, about 7 percentage points higher than the five-year average. Texas had almost half its rice acreage planted by then, compared to a five-year average of 22 percent. No other rice-producing states had begun planting by early April, according to USDA.


e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com.