Bishopville S.C., grower Pete Player is quick to deny his youth when asked about being named Young Farmer of the Year in South Carolina, but he is justifiably proud of the award.
“When John Parris, director of public affairs for the South Carolina Young Farmers and Agribusiness Association asked me to compete for the award, my first response was, I’m not a young farmer.
“Mr. John had worked with my father and grandfather and he said the average age of farmers in the organization is 60 years old. Out of respect for John and Beth Colson, an ag teacher at Lee County Careers and Technical Center, I filled out the form. Beth typed it and sent it in, and I thought that would be the end of it,” Player says.
The South Carolina Young Farmers Association has four regions and each region selects a winner and the four winners compete for the state title. To compete with the top farmers from throughout the state and win the award is truly an honor, he notes.
“I’ve been involved in farming all my life, and I try to stay active in every crop association that represents a crop I grow. It’s important to promote our industry and our products, and I try to do that every chance I get,” Player says.
Player is a fourth generation South Carolina farmer and a good one. He farms in Lee County, which is a haven for crop yield contest winners. In 2005 his home county produced the statewide yield contest winner in corn, soybeans and peanuts.
The 2008 Young Farmer of the Year Award, which is the real, if not the official name of the award, was unexpected, but a nice diversion from the many challenges he faces planning for the 2009 crop year, he says.
This time last year (early March) it was hard for farmers in this county to figure out what to plant because everything looked good. Grain prices were good, peanut contracts were good, cotton prices were in line with other crops.
In early March 2009, sitting in the farm house his grandfather built just before the last Great Depression, Player says this year is so dramatically different than 2008. “What I’m going to plant is somewhat dictated by rotation, but with both commodity prices and input costs being so uncertain, it’s hard to know just how far you can go with one crop or another,” he says.
Cotton has been the staple crop for Player for most of his farming career. “I remember back in 1996-1997 we had a particularly wet winter and spring. We couldn’t get into the fields and pigweed was just taking over — Treflan wasn’t controlling it, and we didn’t know what we were going to do.
“Labor was getting hard to find by then and we just didn’t have many options for managing weeds. All those factors just seemed to come together at the same time, making no-till and Roundup Ready varieties a natural combination.
“We started that first year with about 300 acres of Roundup Ready cotton. Since that time Roundup Ready corn and soybeans came around and they fit well into no-till planting. The combination of no-till and Roundup Ready varieties has played a big role in how we have farmed since.
“It seems we have come full circle with cotton and pigweed with all the problems we are having these days with resistance to glyphosate. Now, all our crops are planted no-till, even our peanuts,” Player explains.
He started growing peanuts in 2004 and has consistently topped 4,000 pounds per acre. Irrigated peanuts, he says, is a perfect rotation crop in his operation. He hoped it would be a staple crop for many years.
Now, he says peanuts may not be an option. An over-supply of peanuts, the recent salmonella outbreak from contaminated peanut products and a generally shaky economy has virtually shut down peanut production so far in 2009.
If peanut contracts are issued, and as of early March that was still a big IF, Player says he expects both dollars and acreage to be cut. Growing peanuts for $355 per ton is a risky farming business, even if a grower can maintain the 5,000 pound per acre production that Player has averaged over the past three years.
Most South Carolina growers, particularly those who got into production in the past four or five years don’t have a base and aren’t eligible for government support programs. While other growers aren’t likely to get more than the $36 per ton direct payment, technically they could be eligible for a hundred dollars or more per ton. Though $36 is likely to be the support number because of the high stocks of peanuts, that little bit of money may be the difference in making or losing money on peanuts in 2009.
Player and a neighbor got into the peanut business in a small way back in 2004. They split the cost of a used combine and digger and planted 50 acres each. They gradually increased peanut acreage, but Player says economics will force him to cut back on peanut acres in 2009.
Growing peanuts on soil that had never been planted to peanuts has been a good crop the South Carolina grower says. The 2009 peanut crop will be planted on the last of his virgin land, though a lack of contracts may force him to leave some of his peanut land vacant this year.
The advantage of growing peanuts on virgin land is no secret — disease pressure is much lighter. However, Planter says his secret to success in growing peanuts is use of a Monasem twin-row planter. “We had always planted all our crops on 40-inch rows, but we knew we didn’t want to do that with peanuts, and we sure didn’t want to buy a new planter just for peanuts.
“We were able to set up to plant cotton and other crops on single rows and peanuts on twin rows. We don’t have to change tires, combine heads or anything, just change to 31-inch rows, which also helped increase corn and soybean yields,” he recalls.
“The first year we planted peanuts with the planter we couldn’t dig them — our digger just wouldn’t do it. We persuaded a neighbor, William McElveen, to help us and we literally had to stand at the end of the row to help the driver line up the rows — we were human row markers that first year,” he laughs.
“It’s still tough to dig peanuts without GPS guidance systems. We hope to add GPS next year, but it’s going to be tough to do with the economy the way it is,” Player says. He recently received completed GPS maps of his farm, so purchasing the equipment to use the maps is the next logical step, he adds.
Player, who is a actively working to help revive the South Carolina Corn Growers Association says high input costs make him more than a little bit concerned about going too strong with corn in 2009. He will likely reduce cotton, corn and peanut acreage and grow more soybeans, but even that is not for certain, he says.
Despite the dim economic outlook for 2009, Player remains optimistic that things will rebound and farmers will have a good year. This will be the first year his daughter, Kayla, will join him full-time on the farm. She will be the fifth generation of Players to farm in Lee County, S.C.