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

“In 2000, the heat and drought hit us hard and we didn’t do much, about 300 pounds per acre,” Bennett said. “That hurt us. 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 is now in his third year of farming on his own, but has nearly 20 years of farming experience.

“Everything (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 current prices, we’re scared to contract, but we’re scared not to. It’s just 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 to 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.”

One crop missing from Tunica, Miss., farmer Nolen Canon’s crop mix in 2002 will be cotton. The producer raised 1,750 acres of the crop in 2001, with “pretty fair yields,” but says the safety net is just not there 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 they lowered the price that they’re insuring,” Canon said. “It just doesn’t have the coverage level it did last year. It’s just 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. I’m still wet and I’m starting to get 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 typically anytime after April 1, weather permitting. Some of my ground will be ready to go early next week (the week of April 8).”

“Unless some unforeseen changes are made to the Farm Bill, we’re planning to cut back on our cotton acreage in favor of corn this year,” say Danny and Howard New of Glen Allan, Miss.

The duo will also increase their no-till acreage in 2002. “By decreasing our tillage operations, we hope to put less hours on our tractors, saving us both time and money,” Danny New says. “We’ll try almost anything to do it a little cheaper than we did last year.”

Doug Tims, who operates Double T-Farms in Brownsville, Tenn., says he has expanded his ultra –narrow-row cotton production a little each year, and will continue that trend in 2002. “It works for us, and although we didn’t move to UNRC for economic reasons, we’re probably spending less money per acre with this system,” he says.

“Ultra-narrow-row cotton production has helped my operation cash flow,“ Tims adds. “Even though I’ve farmed on my own for six years, I don’t think I could get a loan for a new cotton picker, and I don’t want someone else’s old, worn-out picker.”

With UNRC, he’s got about half of the cost of a new picker invested in his planting and harvesting equipment, all of which is slightly used. “You could purchase a new tractor, a new planter, and a new stripper for the same price it would cost you to buy one new spindle picker.”

To further protect the investment he has in his crop, Tims plans to increase the amount of crop revenue coverage he purchases on his cotton acreage. While he also produces what, soybeans and corn, he is still undecided on whether or not to purchase crop insurance for those commodities.

Shelby, Miss., producer Jack Denton is planning to operate his farming operation in 2002 under the assumption that the Farm Bill is going to work out in such a way that everyone in agriculture can survive.

“Farming is like a half-eaten Oreo cookie, “ he says, “because all of the good white stuff – the profit – is gone. We’re simply surviving by paying our way year-to-year, and we’ve got nothing left after we pay our production debts.”

With commodity prices at current levels, Denton believes if the government gets out farming, there will be a “sucking sound” of people leaving the Delta, and the area will be back in trees. “As it is now, the best case scenario this year is for me to cover all of my debts and carry-on for a better day,” he says.

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com