Wiregrass cotton grower J.P. Kelly summed up the mood at the 2005 Wiregrass Expo, held in Dothan, Ala. Appearing as one of the panelists for a discussion titled “Making a Profit on the Farm,” Kelley quipped that a more apt description would be “Looking for Farm Survivability.”
Survival is a word repeated often among southeast Alabama cotton producers these days, thanks to an unusually large worldwide surplus of cotton that has depressed prices. The on-going debate about the future of farm subsidies has only added to growers' concerns.
It's ironic in one sense considering that in terms of yield, 2004 was an amazing crop year, according to Robert Goodman, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and one of the featured speakers at this year's expo. In the United States alone, producers turned out more than 23 million bales. Worldwide, the final tally stood at 115 million bales — a total Goodman concedes he scarcely would have imagined only a year ago.
The levels attest to the enormous technological leaps that have occurred in cotton farming, not only in the United States but throughout the world. Yet, there's a downside.
“It's the fundamental law of supply and demand at work here,” Goodman says.
“When cotton supply goes down, prices go up," he explains. “But when we produce too much of something — too much corn, soybeans and cotton — ending supplies and prices go down."
With a 40-million-bale carryover of worldwide cotton stocks from last year, cotton producers face seriously depressed prices.
“We've got to find a way to become more profitable in cotton — profit is the bottom line,” says Jimmy Jones, Henry County Extension coordinator who specializes in agronomic crops. “Every single facet of a farming operation has to be looked at, from land rent prices to how much diesel fuel they have to run through their tractors and pickup trucks.”
In a period of depressed prices, part of this will involve squeezing operating costs even further — something with which Jim Carver, a Blakely, Ga., cotton and peanut grower is all too familiar.
Carver's first rule of thumb is simple: “matching his production system with what the land will produce.”
Marginal land is reserved for narrow-row cotton.
“We don't try to treat it like a stepchild,” Carver says. “We just put enough money in the crop so we know we can get a yield out of it.”
Even so, Carver and his business partner consistently garner 700 to 850-pound yields with their narrow-row cotton.
With bedded cotton, he says he strives to limit the trips across the field to one harrow and one field cultivation, followed by bedding and planting.
In an effort to reduce his debt load and overhead, Carver and his business partner also have sold newer farm equipment and replaced it with older model equipment.
He also counts himself fortunate that his father, a retired service manager for John Deere, agreed to come to work servicing and maintaining his farm equipment.
Offering one last piece of parting advice, Carver stressed that it is vital for producers to look at everything from the standpoint of matching the production system with soil type.
“There's no one system that works every time. It just involves sound management.”
Marking its sixth year, the Wiregrass Cotton Expo has developed into one of the most well attended and comprehensive annual cotton meetings in the Deep South, attracting producers from Alabama, Georgia and Florida. An estimated 175 growers participated in this year's meeting.
In addition to cotton productivity, speakers also discussed new weed control technologies, insect control and newly available cotton varieties.