Alex Pieroni thought he might be looking at one of his best cotton crops ever when he walked his fields near Lake Village, Ark., last August.
Pieroni and his brother, Joe, had enjoyed favorable weather conditions on their farms (they farm separately) for most of what had been an uneventful growing season. But all that changed in the space of a few days in the latter part of August and early September.
“I figure we lost an average of 500 pounds of lint per acre due to the 20 inches of rain that fell then,” he said. “Without those, I think we could have averaged 1,200 pounds of cotton and 45 bushels of soybeans. Instead, we averaged 700 pounds and 28 bushels.”
The veteran farmer wasn’t complaining. He’s been through enough crops to know that Mother Nature doesn’t always smile on you. It also helped that he priced about 85 percent of his production when cotton futures were climbing toward $1.00 a pound in the fall and winter of 2007-08.
“We were fortunate that I was able to hedge about 85 percent of my crop,” he noted. “But it would have been nice if I could have harvested the crop I had in August and marketed it at those prices.”
Pieroni sold his 2008 crop at 74 cents a pound and received a loan deficiency payment of 7.5 cents per pound for a total of 81 cents. But the 20 inches of rain in August and September, including 8 inches from the remnants of Hurricane Gustav, cost him about $130,000, he figures.
His experience, which was shared by a number of growers in southeast Arkansas, northeast Louisiana and the south Mississippi Delta in 2008, is an example of the risk farmers incur with a crop like cotton that is subject to the vagaries of nature up until the moment it is compressed into a bale.
The latter is one of the main reasons Pieroni is considering planting more acres to crops other than cotton in 2009 for the first time in his 50 years of farming.
“I intend to plant 800 acres of cotton if prices stay about where they are,” he said, while showing an ag editor around the Lake Chicot area in southeast Arkansas. “We will also plant 800 acres of soybeans and about 100 acres of corn.”
Pieroni says his planting decisions are based partly on his relationship with his ginner. “We accommodate the owners of the gin because we’ve been renting land from them since 1948,” he notes.
Such arrangements in several regions of the state are expected to help keep Arkansas’ cotton acreage from dropping even further below the 441,000 acres predicted for 2009. He rents the land for a fourth of the crop. He and the landlord share the fertilizer expense.
“I like growing cotton, always have,” he noted. “But we need to look at other crops until prices for cotton begin to improve. I’ve never grown corn before, so I decided to try it on a small acreage this year. We may increase those acres if corn stays above $4.”
Pieroni has been raising his soybean acres and adjusting his production practices to reduce his expenses in recent years.
In 2008, he burned down his soybean fields with Roundup and then planted in late March and early April. Like many farmers in the Ark-La-Miss region, he plants mostly Group 4 soybeans, which can be harvested in August — usually before the hurricanes begin to hit the Gulf Coast.
On the heavy land he plants to cotton, he burns down with Roundup and First Shot in the latter part of February and early March. He has applied Goal on fields with heavy populations of winter weeds.
On his sandier soils, he uses a Para-till subsoiler and then runs a harrow over the top of the rows to remove the stalks from the previous year’s cotton crop. He re-hips those fields in the fall or early spring, weather permitting. “If the weather is bad in the spring, I just burn down and plant.”
Pieroni’s best cotton variety has been Deltapine 445 BG/RR. He will probably plant about half his acreage in Roundup Ready Flex varieties stacked with Bollgard II in 2009.
His neighbors tell him some of the fields he grew in 2008 looked like they could have picked 1,300 to 1,400 pounds or more of lint — before the rains hit and knocked a lot of the cotton out on the ground.
He knows farmers to the south of his operation over in Louisiana lost more yield and are awaiting federal disaster legislation to help them survive their economic problems. But that doesn’t make his own situation any easier to swallow.
“That’s farming,” he said. “We just have to get ready for this spring and hope we have better luck in 2009.”