Even as experts like merchant William B. Dunavant Jr. point to the likelihood of a big 2001 cotton crop despite low prices, farmers themselves sound less certain of it. No doubt some areas will see jumps in cotton acreage with soybean and corn prices making those crops even less promising for most farmers.
“In our area, there will be an increase in cotton acreage. It'll be coming out of soybeans and some will be out of rice. It's because of price and government-guaranteed insurance programs,” says Tucker Miller, Drew, Miss., farmer and consultant.
“There'll be a lot of new cotton growers, so there'll be a lot of custom picking done this fall.”
Gerald Malin Jr.
Gerald Malin Jr. Campbell, Mo., expects to see more cotton in his area, as well. “We're in a severe boll weevil area, but it's been a cold winter and I think that will help the weevil problem, so some farmers are going to go with more cotton acres. A lot of perennial corn growers are going with cotton because of the situation with high nitrogen prices and because cotton farmers in the area have been making consistently high yields.
“Cotton and rice are about all we've got to deal with in our area now,” says Malin, who grows cotton, soybeans, rice, wheat and corn.
Cotton looks like the best shot for many farmers in E.W. Patrick's Lake Providence, La., area, also. A ginner and farmer, he says, “My personal crop ratio will remain the same, but we'll have more cotton in the area. We usually gin 8,500 to 10,000 acres, but this year there'll probably be 14,000 acres going through it. That'll put us up in the 25,000 bale range or maybe more, but handling it shouldn't be a problem.”
Around Whiteville, Tenn., cotton acreage will likely jump, says Bob Pinner, managing partner in Cedar Chapel Gin and a farm supply dealer there. “I think there'll be a 15 percent increase, providing the money works out for it. It'll come out of soybeans, though soybeans will still be a predominant crop,” he says.
Ginning that much more cotton should be a snap, Pinner thinks. “We have so much volume overkill in west Tennessee gins, we're not using anything close to capacity now,” he says.
Allen Barger is unsure what his Cooter, Mo., neighbors plan, but he's going to plant his usual 450 acres of cotton. “I'm sticking with the same, but we are going to do more no-till than ever because of the high diesel price, and we're trying to cut back on costs. We'll cut trips across the field and use less labor. This is going to be our first year in the boll weevil eradication program, and that's why I'm looking at planting some stacked-gene Bt and Roundup Ready varieties. The weevil problem in our area hasn't been as bad as in the next county over from us, but this is something new happening this year,” he says.
Reducing field trips sounds good to Lee Barnes, Helena, Ark., rice, soybean and milo farmer. Because of fuel and labor costs, he's going to cut out some preplant tillage operations and use a burndown herbicide spray instead. “I tried this last year for the first time and it did a pretty good job on weeds,” he says.
Barnes may shift some soybean acreage into rice as a way to try to increase profits. “We've been getting good soybean yields because we irrigate but profit is so tight,” he says.
A big acreage switch could be out of reach for Barnes, however. “My father and I are primarily soybean farmers and we use rice and milo to rotate. The farm is pretty highly improved and soybeans have been pretty profitable. This is the first year we've considered a shift in rotation,” he says.
Rice, soybean and wheat farmer Jimmy Flanagan, Des Arc, Ark., believes it's time to sit tight. “I'm not going to significantly change my crop rotation, but I'm sure not expanding any,” he says.
Don't look for a big cotton increase around Marion, Ark., says Allen Helms, who farms and operates Crittenden Gin Co. “As a ginner, I'd like an increase in our area but I don't think it's going to happen. I do think farmers will go to reduced tillage where they can. This fuel situation has everybody scared. I don't see a lot of crops in our area being planted for the insurance, either,” he says.
“Last year was horrendous in our area. A lot of dryland cotton averaged 350 pounds per acre. That doesn't help the situation. I think we're going to see milo up drastically this year, even with high fertilizer prices. A lot of our dryland cotton acreage is now in wheat, also, and I don't think they're going to doublecrop that. So I'm a little perplexed when I hear how much of an increase in cotton acreage they're projecting for other areas,” Helms says.
Corn and soybeans will likely remain the big crops in the Kenton, Tenn., area, where Tom Wade Jr. farms and operates a cotton gin. “I simply love the cotton business, but in our area people are getting out of cotton. Our gin has dropped from 20,000 bales a year to 5,000. If we get a year where cotton prices are 75 cents or 80 cents a pound, some people will start buying cotton equipment again. We're on the southern edge of the Corn Belt. I know corn acreage will be down some because of the price of nitrogen. But there'll be a lot of soybeans grown. It's the other alternative,” Wade says.
The unfavorable crop price scenario encourages Billy Barker, Dresden, Tenn., to intensify efforts in his dairy farm, where he currently milks 72 cows. He may cut back on soybean and corn acreage.
“I'm sure not sticking my neck out. If you look at how things are, it makes sense to concentrate on the dairy cows. If I have spare time, I'll play with my toys and go fishing. Right now if you asked me whether to put money in my tractor I use in tractor-pulls or in a speedboat or in the farm, I'd say that boat has about as much chance of making money as the farm,” Barker says.