As planting season approaches for many Mid-South farmers, the uncertainty of farm programs and concern over production costs have cast a pall over what is usually a time of anticipation and nervous energy. Several farmers were surveyed on their concerns for the coming season during the Mid-South Farm and Gin Show in Memphis.
Cotton producer Dan Shelton of Lincoln County, Tenn., is only 20, but no novice to the business. He started his farming career five years ago, at 15. “I took out my first FSA loan when I was 11 and bought five cows. I took the money off my cows and put it into buying equipment for getting started in row cropping.
“It was hard to find land where I'm from because there are so many big farmers around there. But I knew them and they helped me out a little bit. I just knocked on a few doors and eventually got to where I am now.”
That first year, he produced only 6 acres of corn and 8 acres of beans, but his determination stretched to the horizon. He slowly added acreage and a wife, Stacey. Last year, he figured he wasn't making money in corn and soybeans and went to all cotton on 220 acres, his first try at the crop. He made 800 pounds to the acre.
This season, he'll produce 350 acres of cotton with an early 80s model Ford tractor, and a 9950 John Deere cotton picker. Putting the crop in the ground “kind of makes me nervous. It's something to spend that much money and depend on God to give you some rain.”
But Shelton is determined to make it happen. “I wanted to farm all my life. I never did care about the things that other teenagers cared about.
“All I ever had in my head was farming. I couldn't wait to get out of high school. My mom wanted me to go to college. I always did well in school. I was always in the top 15 percent and I had some scholarship offers to college.
“But when I graduated from high school, I was up to 100 acres. I didn't want to let that land go.
“If only prices would get a little better. That would help a lot,” Shelton said. “Costs, especially nitrogen and fertilizer, are going up tremendously. That cuts that margin down.”
When asked about his profitability, Shelton smiled and said, “I figure if I go broke, I go broke. I guess I'll find a job. But I'm going to try farming as long as I can.”
Levi and Rick Hendrix
Levi Hendrix and his father, Rick, farm 800 acres of rice and 400 acres of soybeans near Paragould, Ark.
“Our rice crop last year was good,” Levi said, “but not as good as the year before. It cost us a lot more.”
“We had pretty good crops, but prices were low,” Rick added.
“Fuel was high, fertilizer was high. It definitely has been a tough year, and if things don't straighten up, there are going to be more people out of business. I don't think the government realizes that.”
The volatility of fuel and fertilizer prices is also a factor.
“They have been so up and down that you really don't know where to buy. It's been a mess. I'm not looking forward to this year, I'm telling you.”
Jeff Daniels farms 1,500 acres of cotton near Henning, Tenn., with his father, Ricky. They averaged about 900 pounds of lint an acre in 2005, all dryland. “We were a little shy on the rain last year. But we didn't get any rain on harvest either. We picked everything in 20 days.”
That led to some good grades for the farmers, who yielded “about 2 cents over loan on just about everything.”
As long as he can keep yields and prices up, he figures the farm can be profitable. “But if the government does away with the farm bill, there won't be much cotton raised anymore.”
Mike Ladd farms 1,500 acres of wheat, corn and soybeans around Dyersburg, Tenn. “Fuel and fertilizer costs and the government programs are big concerns for all of us. I'm also concerned about what the bird flu could do to our economy, if it really gets a foothold in the United States.
“Every year, we realize more and more that something happening in China could hurt our income. It didn't use to be that way. You wake up to a new world every day.”
Cotton producer and ginner Bobby Gamil, Joiner, Ark., produces between 2,000 acres and 3,000 acres of cotton each year. Energy costs, prices, and the loss of domestic textile mills are concerns for Gamil as is the profitability of fellow farmers. “Rice producers east of Crowley's Ridge appear to be in tough financial shape with the water situation.
“It's going to hard to survive for farmers who rent their land and are paying interest on equipment. Farmers who have developed some equity through the years will do OK and hopefully things will turn around quickly. But I'm hearing that a lot of farmers across Crowley's Ridge had to use a lot of their savings to get out of debt last year.”
As for Gamil, “we'll just keep on going down the road like we have and hopefully, everything will be okay.”
New biodiesel plants will help grow the market for soybeans, “but we can't grow soybeans just for the oil. We have to move the meal,” Gamil said. “The soy diesel and biodiesel markets, for the time being, can only be as large as the excess oil after food.
“But hopefully, in the future, with new technology, we can grow a crop that will give us more gallons of oil per acre. That's what we'd like to see.”