CALDWELL, Ark. -- Farmers Ronnie and Jerry Jarrett are doing everything they can to cut costs these days. But they don't scrimp on irrigation, fertility or their rotation program.

The Jarretts farm 3,800 acres, including 1,000 acres of rice, 400 acres of cotton, 650 acres of wheat, 250 acres of milo, and the balance in soybeans. They have two full-time employees plus Jerry's son, Justin, and Ronnie's son, Drew.

About 90 percent of the farm's acreage is irrigated, much of it with rollout pipe. It takes 60 quarter-mile rolls, annually, or 15 miles to get the job done, according to Ronnie. "We're even irrigating more of our beans with it, getting away from the levees."

The cost of inputs are a huge concern for the Jarretts "because it takes so much money to make a crop," Ronnie said. "Fertilizer, fuel and equipment costs are steadily going up." The Jarretts run 19 of their irrigation wells on diesel, while another 16 wells run on electricity.

Sometimes what they pay for inputs is just the luck of the draw, according to Ronnie. "Two years ago, diesel was 57 cents. Last year, it went to a dollar. This year, we paid $1.30 a gallon for fuel when we started this spring and it's back down to 96 cents. We booked our urea at $180 a ton and it went to $256."

To keep costs down, the Jarretts keep their equipment and tractors updated as much as possible. "But a lot depends on how well we're doing financially," Ronnie said. "We just got one new tractor and a used one and we probably kept the old ones a little longer than we wanted to.

"We do some work on them ourselves," Ronnie added. "On the combines, we try to rework them. But all of them have computers now and if something happens, a mechanic has to come out and work on them."

That's another cost that the Jarretts don't have control over. But yield? Well that's a different story. All their crops receive the fertility and water needed for high yields, which have helped the Jarretts keep their heads above water during times of low prices.

In 2002, they cut an average rice yield of 150 to 155 bushels, dry. Cotton yields were impressive at 1,150 pounds. "The year before, on one field we picked some three-bale cotton," Ronnie said. Soybean yields, which include irrigated and double-crop beans, were around 40 bushels.

Rice varieties include Wells, Cocodrie and Bengal. Soybeans varieties include conventional as well as Roundup Ready cultivars.

The mixed soil seems well-suited for the Jarrett's rotation program, which is designed to keep the land built up, primarily through rice and wheat. On the other hand, it takes conventional tillage to work down the heavy residue produced by those crops.

On rice ground, "We'll disk it up in the fall, let it lay all winter, then disk it up again in the spring," Jerry said. The latter is usually done as soon as the ground gets dry, usually around the first of March. "Then we bed up cotton land, then bean ground. We try to get everything ready before we start planting."

The Jarretts were fortunate in their planting season this year, getting most of their crops planted on time. "We got our cotton planted by May 1," Ronnie said. "We have 400 acres, so we were able to plant that in three days. Plus, we had our cotton land ready to go, and it took only two tractors to plant it."

June weather, however, delayed wheat harvest for the Jarretts, which in turn delayed planting of double-crop soybeans.

The Jarretts credit boll weevil eradication and Bt cotton with helping them bump their cotton yields. "With eradication, we're making a top crop now that we used to couldn't make." Ronnie said.

This year, the Jarretts have gone to the community refuge option for Bt cotton which is allowing them to plant all their 400 cotton acres in Bollgard cotton. "My neighbors farm a lot of conventional cotton, which lets me go with that option," said Ronnie.

In the last 20 years, the Jarretts have seen a lot of changes in the way they sell their fiber. They both recall going to Front St. in Memphis in the 1970s and 1980s. "One time, we had 100 bales to sell and we had 100 samples in the back of the truck," Ronnie said. "It didn't long for the buyers to realize when a cotton producer was walking up and down the street. Now you don't do any of that. But it was fun."

Today, the Jarretts gain a few extra cents per pound by marketing their cotton mill-direct through Lindsey Brothers Gin, in Caldwell, Ark. "That helps us some on the price," Ronnie said. "The mills like the FiberMax because it's a higher-strength cotton."

Cotton acreage includes 75 acres of FiberMax FM 989 BR, 26 acres of FM 960 BR and 299 acres of Stoneville ST 4892 BR. The Jarretts like the ST 4892 BR because it's a good-yielding variety that doesn't trend toward high micronaire. They had 17 bales of high-mike cotton in another variety in 2001, which prompted the change.

When asked what they liked most about the farming profession, Ronnie answered, "The freedom, being outside. Every day is different."

The downside is that the Jarretts are doing a lot of paperwork to comply with government programs. "Updating our yields was a pretty tough job back in the fall. It was an ordeal," Ronnie said.

The family has another unique ability aside from farming — carpentry. The Jarretts' father, J.T., built his own home from the ground up, with his young sons helping. Later, the family built homes for Ronnie, Jerry and a sister.

J.T., who started farming part-time while working at a factory in Forrest City, Ark., in the late 1950s, went full-time on the farm in 1974 and slowly built the farm into a 3,000-acre operation. He retired in 1992 and turned the reins over to his sons. J.T. passed away in November 2001.

The Jarretts were recently named St. Francis County Farm Family of the Year for 2002, an award sponsored by Entergy and the Arkansas Press Association. They plan to continue the family tradition of making the farm a better place than they found it — with the hope that their sons will someday take over the operation.

"But we haven't really thought about retiring," Ronnie said, smiling. "We'll have to at least go till we're 65."

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com