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New technologies require investments of time, money

A friend and I were reminiscing about watching people pull cotton sacks through the fields in one of the Mid-South states in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Then, you would see whole families out in the fields with all but the smallest children picking cotton. (My brothers and I picked on my grandfather's farm after school and on Saturdays until we were in high school.)

I don't remember anything particularly uplifting about the experience, although there have been efforts to try to put an aura of romanticism around it. The John Grisham novel and TV presentation, “A Painted House,” comes to mind.

My friend has not been involved in production agriculture and is not familiar with the $250,000 to $300,000 mechanical pickers that have replaced hand labor. Like most Americans, he still visualizes farmers driving small tractors and two- or four-row pickers and small combines.

They find it difficult to imagine a modern, six-row picker, equipped with auto steering systems, GPS receivers, yield monitors and — hopefully in the not too distant future — an on-board module builder that will pack the bale in a half-size module and drop it in the field.

This conversation was prompted by my comments about a tour of Mid-South farms that are growing cotton in 15-inch rows, either solid cotton or variations of skip-row patterns that involve two 15-inch rows on a bed.

From an experiment on about 2,000 acres, mostly in Tennessee and North Carolina, the practice has grown to an estimated 40,000 acres across the Southern states. Most of the growers believe the practice is saving them from $40 to $100 per acre.

Of course, new production systems usually require investments of time and money. Besides buying the new variable-width 12-row pickers needed to pick the 15-inch cotton, growers are experimenting with 24- and 36-row, 15-inch row-spacing planters to put the crops in.

The high cost of trying to adapt new technology to stay competitive in world markets or just trying to upgrade conventional equipment is something that is rarely mentioned in some congressional circles.

Of course, few of those who criticize U.S. commodity programs or introduce legislation to lower payment limits have seen a six-row cotton picker or the new 12-row variable-spacing units that are being used to spindle pick the 15-inch row configurations in the field.

They don't realize that a cotton farmer may have spent $100 an acre for seed, seed treatments, fertilizer and herbicides before the first plant comes out of the ground. Or that he can spend $55 to $60 an acre for custom-harvesting his crop if he doesn't own a picker. Rice farmers, unfortunately, are in a similar situation.

Up until a few years before he retired, my grandfather planted his 13-acre cotton allotment with a two-row, mule-drawn planter. He owned a tractor, but he liked the stand he got from the old planter. Those days are gone — as much as we might like to have them back.

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