MEMPHIS, Tenn. – The Mid-South crop season got off to a slow start in the spring of 2003, but the year ended with an open fall perfect for maturing out and harvesting late-planted crops. Oh, and yields, prices and quality were pretty good, too.

Here’s a review of 2003 and a look ahead to this year’s crop from interviews with producers attending the 2004 Mid-South Farm and Gin Show Exhibit.

Joiner, Ark., farmer Bobby Gammill is keeping a close eye on the markets to help him figure out his crop mix for 2004. “I’m going to have to decide in the next week or so whether to put down rows or levees. A lot of the cotton acres will be the same, and a lot of the rice acreage I don’t have a choice in. We have a dryer and gin, so I can go either way.”

After harvesting a good cotton crop in 2003, Gammill will stick to his usual plan for 2004. “We prepare a seedbed, plant, irrigate, run a hooded sprayer twice in the cotton and we harvest,” he says. “We lease our big sprayers out, and they run them for us. We control the timing of the application. The co-op puts out all the fertilizer.”

His 2003 cotton quality was about average and definitely better than he year before. “We did a better job of defoliation. These new varieties, especially when irrigating, are harder for us to get the leaves off. I think we’ve learned to go ahead with a two-step program.”

Lester Griffin will manage 3,200 acres of cotton, plus rice and dryland soybeans this year on Parks Place Plantation in Shelby, Miss. Griffin, who took over the job about a month ago, will run a no-till, Roundup Ready cotton program. Varieties will include DP 555 BG/RR and DP 444 BG/RR.

It took “some hard work,” for Griffin to move up to farm manager after only five years in farming. “You have to be able to do a lot of different things, delegate your labor and having some common sense helps,” said Griffin.

Griffin learned farm mechanics in high school and then welding after he graduated. He worked at a forklift factory until the industry entered a recession, then got a job on a farm through his brother-in-law, who was a farm manager.

Griffin says the biggest challenge facing him this season is covering such a large cotton acreage, with four full-time laborers, plus six part-timers.

The good yields and good prices of 2003 were a long time coming for former Mid-South High Cotton award winner Bob Walker. Walker, who raises 3,900 acres of cotton with his brother, Bill, in Somerville, Tenn., noted, “Prices really were nice this year. With good yields, we were finally able to see a little light at the end of the tunnel.”

At the beginning of the year, however, the light at the end of the tunnel might very well have been an oncoming train. “Our first 60 days last year were just horrible. Some cotton sat in the ground for two weeks. But cotton will compensate given the opportunity. We had a favorable fall to get it out. It made a world of difference.”

The Walkers are looking at several new cotton varieties this year, including DP 444 BG/RR. “It looked good in the county trials,” Walker said. “I think it will be a good, early variety. It fluffs out good and has good pickability. We’re also looking at ST 5599 BR. It’s a longer season plant, but it’s got good vigor which will help us get started early.”

Walker believes that newer varieties are providing the quality that growers need to stay competitive in the world market. “The seed companies realized that they had to do something. They knew there was a potential problem with quality and they’ve reacted accordingly.”

The Walkers had already started land preparation in late February. “We ‘re working in some bottoms trying to smooth some spots out. We should be hitting it hard this coming week. It’s time to get busy. It won’t be long before we’re planting corn.”

The Portland, Ark., farm of Grady Tabor Jr. missed most of the early season rainy weather that delayed planting and slowed development over much of the Mid-South in 2003. “We had a pretty smooth season all year long. We got our cotton and rice all in early.

“We had one of the better years we’ve ever had, yieldwise and pricewise” said Tabor, who also raises soybeans and wheat. “The crop was easy to harvest in the fall.”

In addition, a dry fall enabled Tabor to get a lot of ground preparation completed this year. “We’re ready to roll,” he said. “But I’ll be honest with you. Used to, when I signed that crop loan, I felt at ease. Now I sign it, it’s, Oh Lord, I’ve got to get all this back.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com