The production picture for traditional Southern crops was a bit murkier in February than it has been in the last two years.

There was curious news from the National Cotton Council. On Feb. 8, it announced that according to its grower survey, cotton plantings nationwide would be up 8.2 percent from 2013. But plantings in the Southeast – including Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida and Alabama – would be down 1.2 percent.

The survey indicates a 5.3 percent drop in North Carolina cotton and a planned decrease of 3.7 percent in South Carolina.

But Virginia reported the largest increase in the region at 4.1 percent, followed by Alabama at 2.9 percent and Georgia at 0.1 percent. Florida indicated a decline of 10.9 percent.

In Alabama and Virginia, the increase in cotton acres is coming at the expense of corn, the survey said. Respondents in the Carolinas indicated a shift into soybeans while Florida’s cotton acreage is moving into peanuts.

The prospects seemed better in general for peanut producers. “We anticipate a fairly good year, although the contract price of $525 is less than last year,” said Bob Sutter, CEO of the North Carolina Peanut Growers Association. “But they will plant what they can for that amount. That price will likely generate an acreage very similar to last year, in the 80,000-to-85,000-acre range.”

Thanks to two excellent years, peanut growers have been able to rebuild their production infrastructure. “I think most have updated their equipment by now and are ready to plant when conditions are right,” said Sutter.

Demand continues to be strong, but there is a logistic problem: shellers are running way behind on processing the 2013 crop. Exports are still up, though not as strong as a year ago.

In South Carolina, Extension peanut specialist Scott Monfort said at the South Carolina state peanut meeting in Santee Jan. 30, “We anticipate acreage this year will go up a little bit, but we don’t expect the big jump we had in 2012. We need to maintain our peanut acreage in order to facilitate crop rotation.”

But there is considerable thought that the Palmetto State hasn’t reached its cruising speed in peanut production. “We have tremendous potential for the development of peanuts,” said Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers at the meeting. “The recent announcement of more buying stations in South Carolina is very encouraging.”

Sweet potato acres up, tobacco confused

Sweet potato growers appear set to make up for the rainy spring last year. Acreage of sweet potatoes in 2013 was reduced considerably because of rain during the planting season, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. Farmers wound up with 15 percent less than the year before. That lead to a shortfall in production, and that in turn lead to buyers very anxious to get a full crop in the ground in 2014.

Johnson-Langdon expects plantings this season of above 60,000 acres, which would be in the normal range. “Our farmers seem optimistic about this crop,” she said. “Besides our established growers, there is some interest among new growers.”

Those growers may be on the market for new machinery, but Johnson-Langdon said established growers probably have the equipment they need already.

There is one piece of sweet potato machinery you can't buy at any price. “We have never had a viable mechanical harvester,” she said. “Harvest still has to be done by hand, and it is very labor intensive.”

Tobacco contracts slow

The market signals for tobacco were confusing. On paper, it seemed that there should be a hot contract market for their product, since production fell so short in the wet summer of 2013. But after a strong start, the contracting pace slowed considerably in early February.

“There is some concern about the apparent cutback on contracts,” said Tom Pharr, CEO of MarCo manufacturing, which produces tobacco harvesting equipment. “A month ago there was great optimism among the farmers. Now there is less.”

Farmers who want more tobacco are finding it hard to acquire, and new growers are getting no encouragement as yet, said Rick Smith, president of Independent Leaf Tobacco Co. “But hopefully everyone who wants a contract will have one at the end."

The president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina suggested “the spike in prices in 2013 may prove not to be the new norm.”

Brent Leggett, Nashville, N.C., said, “A farmer would be ill advised to begin pouring concrete and purchasing barns based on the expectation that 2013 prices are now normal...it is important to recognize this market fluctuation as not being much different from $8 corn a year ago or $1.25 cotton a few seasons back. What are those prices today?”