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Farm program, technology critical

J.W. Spencer and his sons fight the never-ending battle of saving a dime without losing a quarter in the process. They're able to make a profit by investing heavily in technology and using alternative fuel sources amid higher priced inputs and fuel.

Like many farmers today, however, they could be out of farming if severe changes were made to the farm program.

Spencer farms with his sons, Chad, 29, and Craig, 25. In addition to corn and soybeans, the Spencers grow 2,400 acres of cotton.

“If it weren't for the government programs, there wouldn't be but a handful of farmers left,” Spencer says. “This is one of the things that galls me: They're talking about changing the farm program now mid-stream.

“We rented this block of land through 2007, which supposedly was where this farm bill was going to go and we based our rent on what kind of government money we were going to get,” Spencer says. “If it changes, we're getting too much rent. To me, it's not fair to change mid-stream. Farming is a thing that you just can't plan what you're going to do tomorrow. You've got to plan what you're going to do years ahead.”

Payment limitations don't fit the family farm. “Even though we have a couple of different entities, we're still a family farm,” Spencer says. “It makes no difference whether you cultivate 3,500 acres or 1,000, you still have that same cost per acre. When they put a limitation on it, they're limiting family farms to growing where they can survive.

“If you grow, you don't survive,” Spencer says.

“How can we compete with a China or Brazil?” Spencer asks. “It's not a national market, it's a global market.”

Spencer began growing cotton in 1995. That first year, he didn't have any of the technology traits now available in many varieties. “I'm a little bit more bald headed because of that,” he laughs.

“If it weren't for the technology in cotton varieties, we wouldn't be able to grow cotton in the Blacklands,” he says. “Pre-emergent herbicides don't work well here.”

A firm believer in technology as a way to stay ahead and make a profit, Spencer plants Roundup Ready varieties in cotton, corn and soybeans. He planted 50 percent of his corn acreage in YieldGard varieties last year and reports those were the highest yielders.

“Technology is going to be very important to us in the future,” Spencer says. “We have problems with some weeds in this area that glyphosate doesn't do a good job with, so we probably don't need to throw away our hooded sprayers.” He expects to plant the next generation of crop technology as well.

As far as refuges are concerned, Spencer believes they're not needed. “We don't have to plant a refuge area in soybeans, so why should we have to have a refuge in cotton?”

Faced with high fuel prices, Spencer and other farmers are putting their destiny in their own hands, producing and using biodiesel. “If we can't promote our own products, how can we expect other people to,” Spencer says. “We have to promote what we grow. Right now, we're relying on people overseas for fuel. What would happen if we got to where we have to rely on foreign countries for food. Standing in line for fuel is one thing. If people start standing in land for food, that's another thing.”

He's a member of the Grain Growers Cooperative, which is in the process of building a biodiesel plant in Mount Olive, N.C.

Spencer is also on the board of the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association. His involvement is geared toward representing farmers and educating consumers.

“We've got to educate people so they can know how farmers operate,” Spencer says. “We've made a lot of strides in reducing nitrogen rates, and in most cases, have exceeded the goals of reducing nitrogen runoff.

“Education is one of the main things farmers will have to do in the future,” Spencer says.

Production on this eastern North Carolina farm mirrors a family approach. They got out of hog production in the 2001 through the state hog buyout.

Now a row-crop operation, the Spencers share the responsibilities. Chad rows up the land for planting. Craig runs the planter and the sprayer. “Everybody's got their own specialty, but we pitch in and do what needs to be done,” Craig says.

“I try not to learn everything,” their father teases.

Last year was a good one for cotton production. They had average yields of two-and-half-bales per acre. “I'll take another year like that,” Spencer says.


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