How would you describe the typical Southeastern farm? It might be difficult, considering the extraordinary diversity of the region's agriculture, with a crop mix including everything from peanuts and tobacco to blueberries and strawberries.

“One of the things folks don't understand is that Southern agriculture is totally different from the Corn Belt, the High Plains or anywhere else,” says Stanley Fletcher, agricultural economist with the University of Georgia and the National Center for Peanut Competitiveness (NCPC).

“Whenever a Southeastern grower says he has a 1,200-acre peanut farm, he isn't talking about 1,200 acres of nothing but peanuts. He may have peanuts, corn, cotton, vegetables, tobacco, hay, soybeans and wheat. This is the mix of a typical Southeastern peanut farm. But you'd be surprised at how many folks in the United States don't understand this basic premise. This changes their view of Southeast agriculture,” says Fletcher.

Presenting a more accurate view of Southeastern peanut farms was one of the aims when the NCPC began establishing Southeastern representative peanut farms, he says. The project, explains Fletcher, is being coordinated with the support of the Cooperative Extension Service and local county agents and with the cooperation of the Agricultural Food and Policy Center (AFPC) at Texas A&M University.

The AFPC, he continues, has a 20-year history of designing such representative panel farms used in analyzing the impacts of agricultural policy and environmental issues. Under this project, 11 representative Southeastern peanut farms — soon to be 12 — representing Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina were developed with the intention of adding more farms as needed to represent various areas.

“The information gathered from these representative farms is used to analyze the impacts of the potential adoption of alternative production technologies, environmental regulations, water usage and other potential changes in peanut production.

“Basically, any time an issue comes up from a technological, regulatory or policy-type avenue, these farms can be used to see how they'll be affected. This type of information will allow peanut farmers to know ahead of time how a particular issue might affect their operations and, therefore, respond in a proactive way,” says Fletcher.

Each farm, he explains, was developed by a panel of approximately six producers of similar size, geographic location and production practices to derive a consensus farm that is representative of the area. Producers were selected with the help of local county Extension agents.

The process of building the representative farms involved focus group-type interviews, says Fletcher. The producers selected attended a half-day meeting. They were asked questions related to the size, practices, crop mixes, machinery, equipment, labor, etc., and related costs of their operations. Panel members then derived a consensus farm representative of the area based on this information.

Preliminary pro forma financial statements are developed for the farm and reviewed by each panel. The panel members discuss these results via conference calls, follow-up meetings or through communicating with facilitators until the panel is satisfied that the results are reasonable for their representative farm. Once each representative farm is satisfactory with the respective panel members, they are used to analyze the impacts of alternative policies on their economic viability.

Given the changes occurring in the peanut industry since the passage of the 2002 farm bill, it's important, says Fletcher, that these representative farms are updated in a timely fashion to account for the changes that will be made at the farm level. The projects began in the spring of 2002, and the farms were updated at the beginning of 2003 to reflect any changes brought about by the change in farm policy.

“The cultivated acreage and crop mix for these representative farms exemplifies the uniqueness and diversity of the multi-culture system typical in the Southeast. Several of the farms have similar cultivated acres, but they have a much different crop and irrigation mix.”

Eight of the farms also have beef cattle operations with pasture and hay, he says. One of these farms includes hay and pasture acreage in the rotation. For the other seven farms, pasture and hay are permanent on land either with no intention of including in a rotation or land unsuitable to be included in the rotation.

One farm includes a chicken operation consisting of three chicken houses that turn out five batches per house per year. One farm also includes double-cropped snap beans. The farms also represent a mixture of tillage and other cultural practices.

There also is diversity in the rental/ownership and irrigation of the farms, says Fletcher. The percentage of rented cropland ranges from 30 percent up to 85 percent, while the range of irrigation is from zero to 95 percent.

Diversity also can be seen, he says, in the expected yields of the representative farms. For irrigated peanuts, the expected yields ranged from 3,400 to 4,000 pounds per acre. For dryland peanuts, the expected yields ranged from 2,250 to 3,300 pounds per acre. The expected yields for irrigated cotton ranged from 850 to 1,000 pounds per acre while the expected yields for dryland cotton ranged from 455 to 750 pounds per acre.

The expected yield for irrigated corn ranged from 170 to 175 bushels per acre. For dryland corn, the expected yield dropped to 70 bushels per acre. The expected yields for wheat ranged from 50 to 80 bushels per acre.

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com