After 35 crops, cotton is getting to be a stressful and demanding crop for Brownsville, Tenn., producer Richard Jameson.
Cotton fundamentals complicate his decision-making, input costs mess with his bottom line. There’s constant worry that the value of his cotton crop might collapse overnight because of a change of bureaucratic rule in Beijing. That’s not to mention weather, plant bugs and pigweed.
In some places in Jameson’s fields and others in west Tennessee, glyphosate-resistant pigweed can’t be managed effectively by anything but a chopping crew, which has in itself become a multi-million dollar industry in the Mid-South. And there seems to be a vicious plant bug cycle. “They are just getting worse,” Jameson says. “I’m guessing that with all of the corn, and with the cotton acreage having declined so much, that the plant bugs are continually concentrating in what little cotton acreage we have left.”
Meanwhile, corn is a stress pill, by-the-numbers farming. Plant it, fertilize it, water it, cut it and pay the bills, all by Thanksgiving. There can be plant bugs all over it, and it’s not a big deal, unless you’ve got cotton nearby.
Despite the cons of cotton and the pros of corn, Jameson doesn’t like the idea of planting his entire farm to corn. He may adjust his crop mix significantly, but he’s not putting all his acreage all in one crop because of good prices, or not planting any of another crop because it’s too stressful.
“I like to keep my clay moist,” Jameson said, pointing to his head and referring to remaining flexible in his thinking.
So he sticks with an old agronomic principle – crop diversification. It gives him more tools to manage resistant weeds, and spreads his price risk among several crops.
Crop diversification is a philosophy passed down by his late father, Billy Jameson, in a typical father to hard-headed son manner. “Back in 1980s, I wanted to plant cotton fence row to fence row cotton to increase our cotton base because that was where we could get the largest government payment. But my dad wouldn’t do it. He would say, ‘Hell no, we’re not going to plant the whole farm in cotton. We’re going to stay diversified.’
“As crazy as I thought he was leaving all that money on the table, the buck stopped with him. There wasn’t anything I could do about it. I think about my dad more and more all the time. He was the boss, and I was the son, and I always thought we could do things better. But the older we get, the smarter our parents become.
“He was doing risk management. We just didn’t call it that. That is why cotton will remain in the mix today. We stay diversified.”
For Jameson’s father, diversification and crop rotation, contour terraces and grass waterways were a way to manage the potential for soil loss, a huge risk to farmers of that era. “He was into soil conservation. You have to keep the soil,” Jameson said. “We got into no-till in 1982.”
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Today’s risk complex is much more diverse and daunting and pushes Jameson into bouts of worry. To cope, he remains true to his conservative nature, which has been hardened by a scrape or two, like the time he paid out his first $60,000 in new crop receipts to an elevator because he fell short on the previous year’s crop due to drought. After that, Jameson figured he had to get a better handle on managing risk through crop insurance, adding irrigation and smart marketing.
He markets conservatively, realizing that exuberance carries its own set of risks and rewards, especially on a farm with a lot of dryland acres.
Jameson avoids the temptation to price too much of a crop too soon (even if prices are high), knowing it can sink his crop diversification plans faster than a flash flood if he misses an optimum planting window and has to plant more acres than he intended to fulfill a contract.
By mid-August, Jameson had booked about 60 percent of his anticipated corn crop and 50 percent of his soybeans. “I have friends who booked all of this year’s corn at $6.50. I’m comfortable being only 50 percent priced right now. At the same time, you never know how it can turn out. The crop looks good right now. I turn my cotton marketing over to Staplcotn. I know that whatever the average price is, they’re going to get it.”
While cotton remains in the mix, it’s getting extra scrutiny these days. For example, Jameson plants dryland cotton only on land he owns. “If I own the land where the cotton is grown, I’m in black ink. But if I rent that acre, and the landlord gets 25 percent of the gross for rent, I’m in red ink.”
This type of analysis, which University of Tennessee farm management specialist Chuck Danehower provides to farmers, “helps me decide which crops to plant and where. Luckily for the past two or three years, I could make money with a fourth share rent on dryland wheat, double-crop beans, single-crop beans and corn,” said Jameson.
Jameson does understand the lure of corn, and why some producers are planting it on all their acres. “With irrigated corn, your income will be similar or better to cotton if you have a decent price and good yield, and you borrow less money. Why would you ever want to plant cotton again? You have to spray for plant bugs all summer, week after week. And lately they’ve gotten worse.”
Corn has come a long way over the last 15 years in Mid-South agriculture, Jameson notes. In the late 1990s, corn was the risky crop to grow. The price was barely $2 a bushel and a dryland producer was in constant fear of aflatoxin moving into the crop. “Today, we have more corn hybrids that can handle the environmental stress of growing corn in the Mid-South,” he said. “There is more irrigation, which helps. We better understand how to grow it.”
Meanwhile, Jameson’s cotton acreage has shrunk from between 1,000 acres and 1,200 acres annually to between 350 acres and 500 acres. This year, he had 500 acres and wonders why he planted so much.
“It is so frustrating. I burned out a really good employee last year with just 360 acres of cotton. We sprayed plant bugs so much. I’ve got a modern sprayer with auto-steer and swath control with air-conditioning and radio. But he sprayed the cotton week after week after week. Wore him out. But of course I drove tractors when they didn’t even have cabs on them.”
Jameson thinks an evolution is taking place in the culture of Mid-South agriculture
“There was always this thing about being a cotton farmer. I don’t hear that much anymore. It’s more about our quality of life. You want more time to just sit at home and read or book, or travel somewhere to get out of the heat.
“With cotton, by the time we finish with plant bugs, the kids have gone back to school, my wife has gone back to teach, the summer’s gone. With corn you can finish most of what you need to do in July. With modern technology, I can go on vacation and turn my water on and off from North Carolina.”
Barring a big bump in price or new technology, Jameson will try to hold steady at around 350 acres of cotton in the near future, partly to stick to his diversification objectives, but also to satisfy an agreement to provide 300 acres of cotton to a gin as part of a land rental agreement.
Although many producers cut their farming teeth on cotton, Jameson understands why some of them are leaving it.
“It is hard to realize how much stress modern cotton farming brings if that is all you know year after year. But when there is a viable alternative that provides you more time to enjoy life and reduce stress and anxiety, it will be increasingly difficult to return to the stress.”
As for Jameson, he’ll keep cotton in the mix for now. With all its challenges, he won’t have to worry about keeping his clay moist.