From east Georgia to west Alabama, all farmers are facing the same problem, says Jim Carver, an Early County, Ga., grower.

“How do we make a profit this year? How do we put money in the bank, and how do we satisfy our bankers? We simply try and match up the profitability we can make with the appropriate production system,” he says.

Carver is a self-professed part-time farmer, holding another job in the agricultural industry, as does his partner. He participated in a “Making a Profit on the Farm” grower panel at this year's Wiregrass Cotton Expo, held in west Alabama.

“We farm about 2,500 acres with retired dads who help us. We rent land from some retired farmers who also help us out. We initially hired a bunch of young kids, but they nearly broke us. We went back to men who are 65 years and older. They might be a little bit slower, but they sure don't tear up as much equipment,” he says.

Carver says he and his partner “sort of backed their way” into farming. “Neither of us was really born into it or married into it, so we started out farming a little on our own.

“Narrow-row cotton is what got me into farming in Early County. I owned a 4440, a mower, a grain drill, and a cotton stripper. It seemed like I was being profitable. I had money left over, and I didn't know what to do with it. So I went out and bought an 8400, 7810, row units, 9986's, and the next thing I know, I'm in debt and trying to maintain a cash flow,” he says.

Carver grows conventional-tillage cotton, where he harrows, field cultivates, beds, and plants a Roundup Ready/Bollgard stacked variety.

“We also do a strip-till, single-pass system, where we strip-till and plant all in one pass on our sandy soils. We grew about 1,100 acres with that system this past year. We grow about 500 acres on a bed, and we also grew a little more than 400 acres of narrow-row cotton.

“I've tried to match the production system with what the land will produce. We look at topographical or soil maps, and we talk to the farmers from whom we rent land. On our sandy land with marginal soils, we try to plant narrow-row cotton. We don't treat it like a stepchild. We just try and manage it so we only put money into the crop that we're certain we can yield back from it,” he says.

Carver consistently makes 700 to 800 pounds per acre on narrow-row cotton. Over a three-year history, narrow-row yields have averaged about a bale and a half, he says.

“As for the bedded land, we limit the number of trips across the field to one harrow and four field cultivations, bedding and planting it. Every now and then, we have to come back and remove some clods, and we may have to make an extra trip with a harrow or field cultivator. We know this is our best yielding cotton. This past year, our bedded land averaged 1,100 pounds per acre.

“We had more money in that crop. In the end, when we went back and looked at our net return per acre — even though our yields were better — our net return was not much different from what we had with our narrow-row cotton.”

Carver says his strip-till, single-pass system probably is the cheapest way he farms. “The jury is still out on it, but I like the single-pass system. Our first year of doing it, we didn't do a very good job, and we didn't get a good stand. I'm not saying we're going to get away from it, but we might change it up a little, strip-tilling and then coming back and planting on a stale seedbed later. We just didn't get the stand of cotton we needed to make a decent yield.”

Carver says he has heard many growers talk about planting peanuts behind cotton and going to an every-other-year rotation.

“From everyone I've talked to in the peanut industry, if we load up on peanuts, we're going to be in trouble. We might not be in trouble in 2005, but it'll get us in a tight in 2006 and in the 2007 farm bill that's coming up. I caution anyone who's thinking about it. If we all jump to peanuts, we'll suffer next fall when we go to deliver because the price simply won't be there, and it probably won't be there in 2006.”

Carver and his partner are working to maximize their inputs so they can make more on cotton. He recently sold his 8400 and 7810 tractors.

“We're buying older equipment and trying to reduce our debt and overhead. We're trying to do a better job more efficiently. We're trying to have a few more tractors on hand rather than trying to do it all with our big equipment.

“We're looking at every single thing we do. During the winter, we grease and service our planters, including changing bearings.

My father is a retired John Deere service manager with 38 years of experience, and he's coming to work for me. We'll concentrate heavily on maintenance.

“The single thing that has cost me money in the past two years has been not getting a stand. There was a time when we'd plant cotton, and if we didn't get a stand, we'd go back in and replant to fill in the gaps. But we can't afford to do that anymore. With current technology and seed costs, we have to get a stand on that first pass. I do 90 percent of the planting, and I want to make sure we get a stand on the first pass through.”

This past year, Carver picked most of his own cotton, and it was an eye-opening experience. In that cotton picker, you can see every mistake you've ever made. It really opened my eyes. I don't need a yield map to tell me where we messed up. I can see it in the weak spots in the field.”

Carver advises fellow farmers to use caution when buying equipment.

“Don't go out and load up on new equipment — that's not really the answer. Cotton strippers and cotton pickers are not the answer. We've made the equipment dealers very happy. We jumped from peanuts to cotton and back to peanuts. We soon found ourselves in debt rather than trying to build equity in something. And the answer isn't in jumping to another production system. There's no one system out there that works every time. It all comes down to good, sound management.

“Farming has never been easy — it's just what we love to do. Every farmer I know will figure a way to survive, and that's what makes us who we are.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com