Delta farmers who practice minimum tillage face a difficult decision in the next few days. Do they wait for soils saturated by three storms in as many weeks to dry out before resuming harvest or do they put pickers or combines in those wet fields and hope for the best?

Until recently, there wouldn't have been any hesitancy. Growers would have cranked their harvesters as soon as the soils had enough “bottom” to them to support the weight and smoothed out the ruts with a disk in the spring.

But farmers who have adopted reduced-till or no-till are reluctant to undo the good those practices have done for their soils, as Charles Ed Snipes, Extension specialist with the Delta Research and Extension Center in Stoneville, Miss., noted in an interview.

“A lot of conservation tillage growers are less inclined to deal with ruts,” he said, referring to the conditions left by Tropical Storm Lili on Oct. 4. “They don't want to get out there and rut up a field, because they know they'll be faced with full tillage to correct that problem.”

The decision is complicated by the shorter days and less favorable drying conditions in October and November.

If the weather phenomenon that dumped from 10 to 20 inches of rain on parts of the Delta had happened in late August or early September, farmers would have ample time to let their soils dry in the sunshine being forecast for the next few days.

But with night falling earlier and the dew not drying until mid-morning or later due, in part, to the wet soils, farmers find themselves with fewer minutes suitable for harvest each day.

Another complicating factor: The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act's provisions for a new Conservation Security Program that could pay producers for conservation practices such as reduced tillage and winter cover crops.

USDA staff members are writing the regulations for the program, which isn't scheduled to be implemented until 2003, so it's difficult for farmers to plan how to meet the criteria. And the administration reportedly wants to delay funding the CSP or make it a pilot program, creating even more uncertainty.

Conservation tillage experts say all is not lost if farmers are forced to re-work their fields if they rut them. “We're not saying that you should never till,” says John Bradley, who is fast becoming regarded as the father of conservation tillage in the South. “What we're saying is that you should have a good reason for tillage, and what's happened this fall may qualify.”

Bradley recommends growers re-hip and plant a cover crop behind any tillage that must be done.

Growers from central Louisiana north believe they were spared a major blow when Hurricane Lili dropped from a Category 4 to a Category 2 hurricane hours before it came ashore near New Iberia, La., on Oct. 3.

“I heard a meteorologist say there was no logical explanation for that gust of cool air that caused the hurricane's winds to drop,” said one farmer. “All I know is that the Lord answered our prayers.”


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.