A feeling of gloom pervades much of the Cotton Belt as we enter what should be a joyful time of the year. While most of the country is celebrating another year of economic growth, many farmers are wondering what kind of hand the economy will deal them come January.

The price of cotton - still the backbone of the agricultural economy in the Delta region - has risen slightly since last year. But, the cotton loan deficiency payment has shrunk to a small fraction of what it was in 1999.

As a result of the LDP decline from 21 cents per pound last season to 0.0 cent the week of Dec. 15, cotton farmers are receiving 10 to 12 cents less per pound than in 1999. When you add discounts for short staple and high micronaire, it gets even worse.

Yields fell again in 2000. Mississippi growers produced an average of 649 pounds per acre, their lowest yield since 1995's 622 pounds. Experts blamed a combination of drought and varieties that were more sensitive to the extreme temperatures in July and August.

Similar results have been reported for the other Mid-South states and the lower Southeast, where drought conditions took a severe toll on all crops, many of them for the third straight year.

On the Texas High Plains, growers are reporting yield reductions of 25 to 35 percent after they fought high temperatures, excess rain, drought, beet armyworm infestations and freezing temperatures and snow at harvest.

Unfortunately, yield losses of 25 to 35 percent will not allow growers to qualify for the disaster signup scheduled to begin at county Farm Service Agency offices Jan. 18. Losses must exceed 35 percent before farmers can receive disaster payments.

The National Cotton Council asked USDA to use the emergency aid legislation to provide assistance to producers who incurred severe economic losses with "special attention to those whose losses are severe but fall short of the quantity and quality thresholds set forth in the statute."

But, USDA failed to do so. No one is commenting on the reason, but some have speculated that the Agriculture Department's lack of experience in administering such a program and Secretary Dan Glickman's impending departure shoved it to the back burner.

The department also decided not to include an agricultural fuel cost adjustment suggested by the NCC as part of a severe economic loss feature.

NCC President Robert E. McLendon pointed out in a letter to Glickman that diesel fuel that sold for 50 cents per gallon to agricultural users at planting is now priced at $1.50 per gallon and higher.

Many Southern producers, who rely on irrigation more than growers in the Midwest, took a double whammy last summer because of the increased watering needed for their crops and sharply higher prices for diesel.

Getting USDA to reconsider its decision or urging Congress to pass new legislation will be one of the first orders of business for agricultural groups after the beginning of the New Year.

Meanwhile, we wish for you and yours the best possible Christmas and a much better 2001.