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Farmers’ enthusiasm not missing during what’s likely to be challenging year

I should no longer be surprised — but I am. In a year in which commodity prices promise less than excellent returns and rainfall is little more than a distant memory and production costs continue to hover around merely outrageous, farmers remain upbeat about the possibilities.

I’ve visited several farms in the last few weeks and talked with quite a few farmers at various meetings I’ve attended and have been a bit surprised that folks aren’t hanging their heads, muttering to themselves about how poor the economy looks and wondering out loud just how they’ll make ends meet in 2009.

Most, if not enthusiastic about the prospects for the coming season, are at least hopeful that rain will arrive in time to germinate spring-planted crops and that prices some time during the year will offer at least an opportunity to make a profit.

One told me that after some 30 or more years on the farm he’s still excited about putting in a new crop and anxious to see what new technology and innovative products researchers and industry will offer to make agriculture more efficient.

Several are looking at new crops, things they have never planted before, to add diversity to their operations and a needed rotation to improve productivity of their standard crop mixes.

Sunflowers, sesame and canola top the list of new opportunity crops. And farmers, who have relied on just wheat or just cotton, are looking at corn, grain sorghum and vegetables to spread risks and improve opportunities.

Folks are buying new equipment, adding GPS systems they expect to make their days on a tractor seat a little less stressful and to improve significantly their ability to put things (seed, rows, chemicals) exactly where they want them.

I recently covered a no-till conference in Oklahoma and was impressed with the commitment of many North Texas, Oklahoma and a few Kansas farmers to reduce the amount of tillage they perform. Economics plays a big role in why they are cutting out trips across their fields. Several reported cutting production expenses in half because of no-till agriculture. But most cited soil and water conservation as equally important considerations. One told me he was just tired of watching soil blow away. Another said topsoil was too valuable to let it disappear.

Farmers are looking for new opportunities with biofuel crop production, carbon credits and leases for wind turbines. It’s a bit ironic that farmers may make a few dollars on wind — a force they’ve been fighting for decades, trying to keep it from taking their soil away.

Farmers this winter have greeted me with a warm handshake, a friendly welcome to their farms and a positive attitude about their hopes for 2009. Still, they are realists and understand that cotton prices are too low to make much money, that grain prices are not where they should be and that they’ll have to manage production costs closely to have any chance of coming out in the black.

And peanut farmers face the double whammy of a large 2008 crop weighing on the market and a peanut product scare that threatens to cut consumption, because of one company’s alleged irresponsibility.

They see the clouds; they understand the threats; but they also anticipate a silver lining.

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