HILTON HEAD, S.C. -- Adapting to the new farm bill has been like buying a used pickup truck, says Marianna, Ark. producer John McClendon.

"We've bought it, we've used it some, it's working pretty well for many crops, and as we understand it better and are getting the bugs worked out of it, it's becoming more roadworthy," he told members of the Southern Crop Production Association at their annual conference at Hilton Head.

McClendon, who farmed 4,200 acres of soybeans, cotton, wheat, rice, and grain sorghum in 2003, says the new bill "is working very, very well for cotton, a high-input, high-management crop.

"With the price of cotton where it is this year, and the countercyclical payment, I expect to have a pretty good margin."

He said he expects 50 percent to 60 percent of his income will come from the market this year, compared to only about 2 percent to 2.5 percent six years ago.

"I'm looking forward to not receiving but 2 percent to 3 percent of my gross income from Uncle Sam. I feel much more comfortable farming under that kind of scenario than when so much of my gross income was coming from the government program."

Even so, McClendon says, given his input costs, "If I get a 5 percent to 6 percent net return, I'll consider that very good."

In his area, more than 15 farmers have gone out of business this year, he notes.

"We'll see land that won't be farmed. I've had people call and ask me to take on much more acreage than I've ever handled. There's a demand for management of this type land, mostly by people outside the county who own land, and it's getting to be a problem finding people to do it."

One drawback with the new farm program, McClendon says, is "all the time I had to spend in signing up — two to three days, compared to two or three hours in previous years, and a lot more frustration.

"I've spent a great deal of time on the computer, looking at options, what's best for me and for my farm. Some farmers didn't want to jump through all of these hoops, and they got out of the business."

McClendon farms mostly on his own money, he notes. "If I borrow more than 20 percent of my gross income, I'm unhappy. But a lot of farmers, in order to get financing, are in a position that the bankers are telling them which crops they can or can't plant. Often, the banker will tell them they can't grow cotton because it's high cost/high risk. In some cases, they even tell a farmer he's better off not farming his land. A lot of them are under a lot of stress from this loss of independence."

Even in a heavily agricultural area such as his, many people today do not relate to the problems of the farmer, McClendon says.

"Like most farmers, I don't like subsidies. I have a hard time taking money from the government, but I also have a hard time with people — even in my hometown of 5,000, where everything depends on farm income — who don't understand what we farmers have to do just to survive, and the impact a farm bill has on rural communities."

The farm bill is going to save the government some money this year, McClendon says, "and that will look good for the federal budget. If it continues to work as well as it has in 2003, there's a good possibility we'll get another farm bill when this one runs out.

"The main thing with this farm bill is, we don't want to change it. Like the used truck, when we get it running well, we want to leave it alone and let it work."

McClendon told the SCPA attendees, who are manufacturers, formulators, and distributors of crop protection chemicals, "Your products have been very, very important to farmers over the past few years.

"Crop chemicals today are so much more efficient, perform so much better, and are so much safer and environmentally friendly — and that's a credit to you and your concern for helping farmers to survive and be good stewards."

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com