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Articles from 2001 In January

Merger giant makes FoodShare donation

Syngenta, the new company formed by the merger of Novartis Agribusiness and Zeneca Agrochemicals, wants farmers to think of it as a new ally in their fight to return to profitability.

"Like the farmers we serve, Syngenta is focused solely on agriculture," says Bob Woods, president of Syngenta Corp., United States. "The Syngenta vision is to deliver better food to a better world through outstanding crop solutions. Our ag-only focus will help us realize that vision."

At its launch, Syngenta became the world's largest company dedicated solely to agribusiness and the market leader in each region it serves, according to company spokesmen. In 1999, Syngenta had global sales of over $7 billion and sales of $2.5 billion in North America.

"Syngenta is dedicated to helping growers get the full potential from everything they grow," said Heiri Gugger, president and CEO, Syngenta Crop Protection, North America.

"This means working closely with our channel partners in offering increasingly tailored, innovative products in all areas; maintaining a strong research pipeline; and continuing to focus on grower needs and the demands of the entire feed and food chain."

Woods and Gugger spoke at an Internet press conference in which they discussed the implications of the merger.

During the conference, they also announced the formation of the Syngenta Rural FoodShare initiative, a program that will donate $500,000 in 2001 to America's Second Harvest and the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

"At Syngenta, we're dedicated solely to agribusiness and committed to creating a safe, high-quality food supply," said Woods. "Yet we recognize that even in the heart of North America, too many families don't know where their next meal is coming from.

"With this contribution, we want to focus attention on rural hunger and take steps to help alleviate hunger in the communities that play a crucial role in producing food for Americans and others around the world," he added.

The funds provided by Syngenta will be used to distribute about 15 million pounds of food to hungry families across rural North America. The donation will help insure that rural communities have access to a variety of nutritious foods donated by growers, processors and manufacturers.

"Despite a strong economy and the productivity of North America agriculture, one in 10 households in rural America faces hunger every day," said Deborah Leff, president and CEO, America's Second Harvest. "The Syngenta donation will increase the amount of food available to hungry people in rural communities.

"The Syngenta Rural FoodShare initiative also will increase awareness of the issue of hunger in rural North America," added Leff. "We hope it will encourage others to become involved to help us fill this need."

Following the merger, Syngenta is marketing a broad range of crop protection products, including brands such as Touchdown, Gramoxone, Discover, Dual II Magnum and Bicep II Magnum herbicides, Force insecticide and Quadris fungicide.

"Our product portfolio meets most producers' total crop protection needs," Gugger said. "By providing both selective and non-selective herbicides, we will give them more options for protecting yield and quality. We have the broadest range of fungicides in the business and a wide selection of insecticides for both foliar and soil applications."

In North America, Syngenta will market seed brands, including NK seeds, S&G flowers, Rogers vegetable products and Hilleshog sugarbeet products.

"We intend to improve the profitability of our customers by integrating traditional plant breeding with emerging technologies such as biotechnology. Seeds will be the delivery vehicle for these innovative solutions," said Ed Shonsey, president and CEO, Syngenta Seeds, North America.

"A key outcome will be our ability to meet the diverse needs, demands and expectations of growers and consumers - with high-quality products and continued research and development," he said.

Farm Bureau: Another challenging year

Ag industry already laying groundwork for new legislation After the disasters of the last several years, leaders of various agriculture groups have learned to be skittish in predicting any kind of immediate, positive acceleration in U.S. farmers' collective fortune. On Jan. 7 at the opening press conference of the annual Farm Bureau meeting in Orlando, Fla., Bob Stallman - the president of the organization - didn't buck the trend.

The year 2000, he said, was another challenging year for America's farmers and ranchers.

"Segments of our industry experienced minor recovery, but for the most part producers found the going very tough. This year promises to be a busy time for agriculture - particularly for those in Washington, D.C., whose focus is on agricultural policy. We look forward to working with the new administration and believe many of the items on President-elect Bush's agenda will, if Congress cooperates, benefit farmers and ranchers. In particular, his promise to cut taxes, reduce regulations and open new export markets for our farm goods."

Stallman said congressional leaders have pledged to get a jump start on the next farm bill. Numerous plans and ideas have been floated already and many more are to come.

"I firmly believe that there are some solid principles on which to base the rewrite: the need to boost exports, to retain market-based policies, and to create a mechanism that provides some counter-cyclical support. One other thing is clear: we have to increase the budget baseline for agriculture. Unfortunately, the $4 billion envisioned by Congress in 1996 for the post-Freedom to Farm era is woefully inadequate. The farm economy will be devastated if we don't get that changed."

Stallman also mentioned the 21st Century Commission on Production Agriculture, of which he is a member. The panel was "created by Congress to make recommendations on farm policy after Freedom to Farm made future farm bills unnecessary. I can tell you now, the committee has had to modify the belief from five years ago that there would be no more farm bills."

Stallman said the commission will present its report to Congress within the next several weeks. Farm Bureau and other agriculture groups will follow up with their own proposals.

"We intend to be a major player and will work for comprehensive farm policy that addresses more than just the traditional commodity-based provisions of farm bills. We hope to see a vigorous and thorough debate over the next several years. Farm policy can no longer be merely an afterthought. It's clear however, that whatever mechanisms are included in the next farm bill, farm families will need to be placed at the forefront. We need to find a way to keep as many families as possible in agriculture and present opportunities for young people who want to farm."

Today's producers were greatly influenced by the economic troubles of the 1980s, said Stallman. They learned lessons and have done everything possible to stay competitive.

"By and large, the problems some of them have had over the years were caused by events out of their control - disasters and the Asian financial collapse to name two. These people are tough, they are survivors. They are the kind of people our nation should want and need to succeed. We can't afford to lose them."

Journalists' questions followed Stallman's opening statements. Among them:

How much should the baseline number be increased from the current $4 billion?

"We've been looking at that and haven't come up with a solid number yet. It'll have to be a substantial increase."

What would be substantial? $5 billion more? $10 billion?

"This is off the cuff, but I think you're going to have to double (the current number). I think we need to get into the $9 billion area. Some of that, obviously, can come off provided commodity prices improve."

Do you think Congress should begin writing the farm bill immediately instead of waiting another year or two?

"I think they're going to have to begin this year. The debate is going to be comprehensive and will take a lot of time. There are people who have spoken about completing a new farm bill in 2001. My personal take on that is it will be very difficult to do due to the new president, the tightness of party division in Congress and substantive issues that need fleshing out. I think it will be 2002 before it gets done."

If the markets don't improve, will Congress again provide extra income for farmers as they have the last three years - especially if the proposed tax cuts go through?

"I think there's certainly an indication that another assistance payment will be needed this year given the current low prices and that we won't have a fast enough economic turnaround in 2001. I think there's a good possibility that payment will happen."

What kind of suggestions do you have for the new administration in regards to opening new markets when people have been trying to do that for the past 100 years?

"It depends on how aggressively they do it. I'm convinced the Bush administration is going to push this more than has been done (over the last eight years). How you do it is to just keep going head-to-head. Look at the EU - we passed carousel retaliation almost seven months ago and the administration didn't implement it. That's one thing that's gotten the EU's attention. We expect this administration to use such tools to move us down the road toward opening markets."

There were conflicting reports from Texas during the presidential campaign on how Gov. Bush's policies affected farmers and ranchers there. In retrospect, how do you see those policies?

"Some national reports I heard didn't jibe with my own experiences there (where Stallman resides and works). We went to him on various ag issues. From a state level you don't have the kind of support you do at national levels. But whether it was property rights, water issues or regulatory issues, we took them to him. He applied a lot of common sense and good judgment. I'd have to characterize his dealings with agriculture in Texas as very positive."

Farmers want more variety information

Although cotton growers make the key variety selection decisions that ultimately affect quality and mill performance, farmers may have too little information to make those choices. "Seed selection is the genesis of the entire quality process," says Floyd County, Texas, farmer Eddie Smith. "But, as a farmer, I lack consistent direction from mills on what they want. Growers need a road map for planning cotton production."

Smith, speaking at a fiber quality seminar during the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Anaheim, Calif., said price premiums also do not reflect mill needs.

He said farmers are told that fiber strength is a critical factor for efficient mill operation. "But when strength improves, price incentives evaporate."

Smith said farmers understand that mills need fibers that will run fast and that growers need to grow cotton that permits that speed.

"We also need a price incentive to grow fibers that allow mills to run fast," he said.

Smith said the best guide Texas farmers have for the value of cotton quality is the CCC loan chart. "But these charts are geared to reflect more discounts than premiums; therefore, growers are more dedicated to producing volume than quality."

He acknowledged that recent technology, including high volume instrumentation (HVI), was created to provide a tool that would measure quality characteristics consistently. "Technology, however, is only as good as the fibers it manages."

Smith said a cotton variety taskforce, under the auspices of the National Cotton Council, could be a sounding board to improve communication between mills and growers. "Quality values should be stable from year to year," he said. "We would like a clear road map that would provide a basis for establishing mutually acceptable fiber qualities."

He said inside mills, communications exchanges between spinning and weaving operations establish a procedure for creating mutually acceptable fiber quality standards.

"Farmers need that kind of road map to plan production," he said. "If mills want fiber qualities that allow them to run fast and efficiently, they need to share with us exactly what those fiber qualities consist of. If you tell us what you want, we will grow it.

"But, growers need to be compensated for producing cotton with the qualities that make the mills more cost-efficient."

Larry McClendon, a cotton producer and ginner in Marianna, Ark., agrees that micronaire and staple length fiber properties are both moving in the wrong direction. But, he says, fiber quality has been a moving target for the producer.

McClendon likens the cotton fiber quality trend to the process of evolution. As varieties evolve and improve, the cotton mills raise their cotton fiber quality requirements. The problem with this, he says, is that the mills' fiber requirements are continually outpacing the fiber properties of the cotton varieties being planted by farmers.

"Market forces are telling growers that planting the highest -yielding variety is still your best chance for profit," he says. The prime reason for this is that, for the most part, farmers are paid for the amount of cotton they produce, not the quality of cotton they produce.

For example, crop yields affect a grower's LDP payment, crop insurance payment, and overall production income. Fiber quality doesn't affect any of these methods of income.

McClendon does believe there is a need to continue improving the fiber quality of the cotton varieties being planted by producers. However, he thinks this is unrealistic without any financial incentive to growers for producing higher-quality cotton. "Growers will continue to plant the highest-yielding variety they can despite its fiber characteristics," he says.

Quality is the responsibility of the entire cotton industry, not just the mills, merchants or growers, said Louie Perry, a Moultrie, Ga., producer and chairman of the Georgia Cotton Commission. "One of our biggest concerns is new germplasm. Biotech is the wave of the future, but we must have new germplasm to go along with biotechnology," said Perry.

Whenever new varieties are introduced, they should be tested under field conditions, he adds. "We're seeing stress factors that we've never seen in the past. Under plot conditions, we're not seeing the effects of these conditions. When the varieties are moved to field conditions, then the problems begin to show up," said Perry.

Efforts are under way in Georgia, he said, to secure funding for a research gin. The Southeast is the only region in the Cotton Belt that doesn't have such a facility, he added.

Regional research is another priority in Georgia, noted Perry. "We can't control the weather, but we can breed varieties that are not affected so much by adverse weather conditions. Hopefully, we'll develop more regional variety research.

The top two priorities for farmers today are yield and lowering production costs, said Van Murphy, general manager of BCT in south Georgia. "With profit margins being so low, better quality is way down on the list of priorities," he said.

Murphy encouraged merchants and mills to do something positive for growers. "A grower's contract today has no premiums and they're discounted whenever they meet standards. Premiums should be offered for cotton that meets higher standards," he said.

Stoneville buys Helena cotton germplasm

Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Company, an internationally recognized leader in the development, production and marketing of cotton planting seed, has acquired the Helena cotton research program from Helena Chemical Company.

According to Thomas F. "Bud" Hughes, Stoneville president, the Helena cotton research program gives Stoneville a pipeline of new products already in development, as well as additional cotton breeding stocks with high-quality fiber and crop maturities suited for midseason to full-season production in the Southeast and the lower Mid-South.

"This acquisition is all about broadening the varieties available from Stoneville by giving additional support to mid-to-full season markets like the Southeastern states," Hughes said. "Purchasing the Helena cotton research program adds cotton breeding material that complements the existing Stoneville germplasm base. It also adds a pipeline of value-added transgenic varieties already in development with Roundup Ready and stacked Bollgard/Roundup Ready products. The ultimate goal, of course, is to crossbreed the Helena cotton research germplasm with existing Stoneville germplasm to make new pedigrees of cotton varieties and then to incorporate valuable transgenes into those new products."

Mike McCarty, Helena president/CEO, said, "We feel good about having somebody of Stoneville's caliber taking our germplasm program to the next level. We know the germplasm that we have worked hard to develop will continue in the marketplace and growers will benefit from it."

Don Panter, Stoneville vice president for research and development, expects the germplasm will be developed into transgenic and conventional varieties. "In fact, transgenic versions of some of the products in the program are close to commercial release," Panter said. "Because of this acquisition, coupled with Stoneville's competencies in bringing products to market quickly and confidently, growers can look forward to new transgenic varieties from this program within two to three years."

Milton Allen, Helena vice president of crop protection products and seed, said, "Ever since we started the Helena cotton research program, we have bred specifically for high-quality fiber with competitive yield potential. We have taken the program to that level, and Stoneville will take it to growers' fields."

The Helena germplasm acquisition follows on the heels of Stoneville's purchase of the stripper cotton breeding programs of Brownfield Seed and Delinting Company in early 2000, and Holland Cotton seed in 1997.

"The cotton seed business is about one thing: the future." Hughes said. "We have to invest money into germplasm and research if we want Stoneville and our customers to be competitive in tomorrow's market, and that is exactly what we are doing. Since adding germplasm broadens our breeding capabilities, strategic germplasm acquisitions benefit the future of Stoneville, and ultimately, cotton producers."

Stoneville Pedigreed Seed Co. is headquartered in Memphis, Tenn., with research and development sites and seed production facilities located across the United States and internationally. Breeding cotton since 1922, the company provides conventional and transgenic varieties.

Utilizing business experience...

Louisiana farmer returns to his roots After leaving his lifelong home in southwest Louisiana to find success in big city business, Kyle Sonnier has picked what his father calls the "absolute worst time" to return to their family farm.

"It is a dream of mine to be able to farm with my dad," Sonnier says. "He just keeps telling me that I picked the absolute worst time to come back on the farm. But, I'm optimistic about the future of farming. I wouldn't have left a weekly paycheck if I thought things couldn't turn around."

Sonnier, who grew up on his family's farm in Allen Parish, La., is beginning his farming career after working for a number of years as a financial auditor for a large oil company in Houston. "The pay was definitely better than what I can make farming right now. But, there was just some part of me that always wanted to be out in the country, farming," he says.

Despite his early interest in farming, Sonnier focused his education in a non-agricultural field, earning a degree in finance from Louisiana State University. After a decade of corporate life, however, his desire to farm the land and enjoy the slower pace of country life with his wife and children won out over the monetary rewards his previous career offered.

Looking forward to farming his third rice and crawfish crops in 2001, Sonnier has already learned that changing careers doesn't necessarily mean changing business philosophies. In fact, his previous experience and education in finance is serving him well in today's depressed farm economy.

"I'm not locked into any one specific way to farm. I'm willing to learn and I'm willing to try almost anything that has the potential to make farming more profitable. I want to be one of the farmers that hangs on to make it through this cycle of low prices," he says. "The name of the game is to reduce your costs and improve your rate of production. It's the same with any business."

Sharing resources with his father is one of the ways Sonnier has found he can reduce his operating expenses. "It's difficult for young people, like myself, to get into farming because of the capital outlay required," he says.

To remedy this problem, Sonnier is trading his labor for the use of his father's farm machinery. "It's a good situation for both of us," he says. "I farm my own land and pay for all of my own expenses. But, when I'm not on my land, I'm on my Dad's land, providing him with free labor. It's been difficult getting my feet on the ground the last couple of years and being able to use my Dad's equipment has really helped me establish my farming operation."

In an effort to further reduce his production costs, Sonnier is considering the joint purchase, with his father, of a piece of high clearance spray equipment. The purchase, he believes, would allow both he and his father to rely less on aerial applicators, reducing their pesticide application costs.

Another cost savings measure Sonnier hopes to implement this year is the use of herbicide-tolerant rice for red rice control. "We have big problems with red rice in this area. It drastically cuts our yields and it's ugly and trashy," he says. "I'm hoping to get my hands on some Clearfield rice, which is expected to be available commercially in limited quantities in 2001. I want to see for myself if it performs as well as promised.

"It would be really exciting if it does work as well as is anticipated. We could reap substantial savings, especially with fuel, if we could dry-plant all of our rice, instead of being forced to water-plant in order to control the red rice," he says."

The importance of decreasing per-acre production costs in today's depressed farm economy isn't lost on Sonnier, who says he sold his 2000 rice crop for $10.06 per barrel ($2.79 per bushel). His government loan deficiency payment on the 2000 crop averaged $4.83 per barrel ($1.34 per bushel). "I can remember being a kid when my dad was selling his rice for $31 per barrel ($8.61 per bushel) and now the best you can hope for is about $10 per barrel, or less depending on the milling quality of your rice."

To help offset low rice prices, Sonnier is depending on a good catch of crawfish on his farm in 2001. "We're really counting on the crawfish harvest to supplement our rice income this year."

Crawfish production numbers in Louisiana were down in 2000, due at least partly to extended periods of drought. What happens, Sonnier says, is as the water table drops, so to do the crawfish. The greater the number of crawfish burrowing deeper into the soil to reach available water, the fewer the number of crawfish that are able to make it back to the surface during the harvest period.

The extended dry conditions in 2000 are also expected to impact the 2001 crawfish harvest, which has already begun for some farmers in the state. "The 2001 harvest is running a little late but we've caught a few small crawfish in the traps so far and we're hopeful it will be a good year for crawfish. The experts we've consulted are predicting our crawfish harvest will run from February until June," he says.

In addition to cutting his production costs, Sonnier says he is also focusing on increasing the efficiency of his farming operation. "I plan on eventually taking over our family farm, but there are economies of scale, and right now, I'm not at that level of efficiency."

To increase the efficiency of his farm, Sonnier is going back to school, so to speak. He's participating in the rice verification program with Louisiana State University and he's recently been accepted into the USA Rice Federation's Rice Leadership Program. "My goals in 2001 are to work harder, to try to learn from others, and to put into practice any cost-saving measures I learn from other farmers through these programs," he says

Through the verification program, research personnel from Louisiana State University will make weekly visits to Sonnier's farm throughout the crop season. "I'm really excited about being involved in this program. I'll be able to compare the costs and benefits of what they recommend with my farming practices in similar fields to see which inputs and production practices are the most profitable for my farm.

"There are a lot of things on the horizon that are really exciting and could be revolutionary for agriculture. And, I can't think of anybody better to learn from than the experts at LSU that are on the cutting edge of farming," he says.

Sonnier also plans to spend a few weeks a year traveling to different rice-growing regions with other rice leadership program participants. "As farmers, we tend to be kind of tunnel-visioned, but we can always learn more about rice farming from the farmers in other parts of the country who are also producing rice."

Probably the best source of new information, Sonnier says he has found is a get-together with his neighbors. "I'm actively involved in our local rice growers' association and we get together often to share information and swap notes about the things we have found that work and those things that don't. "The farmers involved in the Allen Rice Growers Association aren't people just collecting government payments; they're levee-walkers. They are people who want to be farming and want to be doing better, and are willing to openly share ideas."

Industry exec: Possibilities unlimited for biotechnology

Creativity will be the most limiting factor in developing new transgenic varieties as the U.S. cotton industry looks to new generations of products to reduce production costs, improve quality factors and increase yields.

"The sky is the limit," says Norma Trolinder, owner of Genes Plus, a biotechnology company in Quanah, Texas. Trolinder outlined her vision of the future for cotton technology recently at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Anaheim, Calif.

On the ground, the industry already has Roundup Ready, Liberty Link, Buctril and Bt cotton varieties. She said these products are either already used widely or soon will be.

On the horizon are products that will be available soon. She said scientists are looking at transgenics with enhanced insect and pathogen resistance as well as resistance or tolerance to various environmental stresses.

"We see some promise for temperature and drought stress resistance," she said. "We're also seeing improvements in yield and quality characteristics. She noted gossypol-free seed and varieties with increased fiber length and thicker cell walls as possibilities for the near future.

Over the horizon lie products that are less certain but hold promise. Trolinder said studies to determine if scientists can manipulate the plant to keep boll temperatures higher during cold periods could result in less temperature-sensitive varieties. "Researchers also are trying to find resistance to water stress," she said.

Blue sky thinking, she said, is unlimited and may pave the way for as-yet-unheard-of technology.

"Can we transfer the legume-fixation pathways into cotton?" she asked. "We need to look at it.."

Water-stress resistance, she said, also should be possible.

Technology, policy agreement urged

Cotton Council president says solutions must be found quickly "A chronic absence of profitability and a heavy dependence on government assistance" make it necessary that the cotton industry focus more of its efforts on technology to improve yield and quality, National Cotton Council President Robert McLendon says.

"We have to find some solutions and we have to do it quickly," he said at the kickoff session of the 2001 Beltwide Cotton Conferences at Anaheim, Calif.

"Never has it been more important for us to bring together the industry's collective intellectual and financial resources."

This must also include, McLendon says, an intensive effort to develop specific policy recommendations as the new presidential administration and Congress move toward developing a new farm bill to replace the Freedom to Farm Act.

The Leary, Ga., producer met recently with President-elect George Bush, Vice President-elect Dick Cheney, and his Secretary of Agriculture-designate Ann Veneman for a wide-ranging discussion of agricultural issues. "I came away with the impression that they will be supportive of policy adjustments aimed at shoring up producer income."

Technology, McLendon says, has been the salvation for many growers, particularly in the Southeast region where he farms. "It put us back in the cotton business after the boll weevil ran us out."

Pyrethroid insecticides were the first wave of chemistry advances, he notes, but only a partial answer. "It was hard to make any money when 18 to 20 sprayings per season were required."

The boll weevil eradication program, advances in equipment technology, genetically engineered varieties, and other developments, and more sophisticated chemistries have given growers excellent new tools, he says, but "a combination of yield and quality losses has wrung most of the profits out of cotton production," costing growers as much as 10 to 12 cents per pound.

Concerns about staple length and micronaire, combined with yield declines, have delivered a triple whammy to growers, McLendon says.

"There's no shortage of theories about possible causes, but there's very little information that can be called conclusive."

The National Cotton Council's Quality Task Force is working to advance quality and yield, he says. "We are becoming more involved in cotton seed breeding programs by state researchers to encourage more participation in localized breeding programs and to insure the maintenance of publicly-developed strains as public property."

But, he says, there is concern that the basic genetic components of today's dominant varieties may not be stress-tolerant. "A major concern is that cotton seed breeding programs that have focused on genetic modifications or obtaining other specific fiber properties may have lost seed vigor in the process."

Changes in farm policy will be extensively debated, McLendon says, but the new administration and Congress are looking for specific policy recommendations. Industry segments will need to reach consensus in several key areas to present in February hearings on commodity titles scheduled by House Agriculture Chairman Larry Combest.

Among the principles the cotton industry supports, McLendon says, are:

(1) a better income safety net than the fixed payment scheme under the current Freedom to Farm Act,

(2) retaining as much planting flexibility as possible,

(3) a high priority on retaining a marketing loan keyed to the world market price and operated in concert with a three-step competitiveness plan, and

(4) minimal impact of payment limitations on program participants.

Nearly 4,000 growers, ginners, scientists, Extension personnel, consultants, and agribusiness representatives are attending the Beltwide Cotton Conferences.

Farmland losing to urban sprawl

A stone's throw from California's Disneyland, just down the street from the sprawling Anaheim Convention Center, and surrounded by commercial development of every stripe, is about a 10-acre patch of farmland planted in vegetables and strawberries.

Almost everyone attending the recent Beltwide Cotton Conferences was amazed that in the midst of all the urban sprawl that patch of farmland had survived.

Well, not for long, it turns out. So the story goes, the Japanese family that has been farming it for years while hotels, motels, restaurants, tee-shirt shops, gas stations, etc., sprang up to capitalize on the hordes of Disneyland tourists, is finally succumbing to the megabucks offers and selling for a reported $60 million. Strawberries and veggies will be replaced with a Disney water park.

It's a story that's being repeated in varying degree around the country as farmland, pastureland, and open spaces adjacent to metropolitan areas become more valuable for homes, businesses, and industries and fall to the developers' bulldozers.

While the trend in the Mid-South has been more pronounced in larger urban areas such as Memphis, Little Rock, or Jackson, many smaller towns such as Oxford, Tupelo, Starkville, and Canton in Mississippi; Jonesboro in Arkansas; Jackson and Dyersburg in Tennessee; and many others in the five-state area are being confronted with urban and suburban growing pains that gobble up nearby farmland and open spaces for commercial and residential development.

Rapid increases in the development of farmland have been a concern for many years and a number of efforts have been launched to preserve and protect farmland and open spaces in the path of urban growth.

A survey late last year, commissioned by Smart Growth America, a nationwide coalition of some 60 public interest groups, showed an overwhelming 78 percent of Americans favoring policies to curb urban sprawl. More than 80 percent said there should be more cooperation among local governments in management of growth, creating zones for open space and farmland, and tax incentives for such programs.

"We've definitely touched a nerve," says Don Chen, the Washington, D.C.-based director of the coalition. "All the evidence shows that Americans support smarter growth, and our elected officials had better start paying attention."

National organizations such as the American Farmland Trust and the Land Trust Alliance have been in the forefront of efforts to protect open spaces and farmland and in promoting legislation to offer financial incentives and/or tax relief through measures such as agricultural conservation easements.

"Americans view farms and open space as well worth protecting," says Ralph Grossi, president of American Farmland Trust. "Protecting farmland and planning for growth go hand-in-hand. Farmland and open space are irreplaceable, and America needs to protect them."

While most of the land trusts are in the northeast states and California, there was a 118 percent increase in the Southern states in the 10-year period ending 1998.

While the development pace has been relentless, there has been some good news recently: The USDA says its estimates of farmland lost to development between 1992 and 1997 were in error by about 30 percent. The total is now pegged at 11.2 million acres rather than almost 16 million, with yearly average losses of 2.2 million acres instead of 3.2 million. Faulty computer software was blamed. Factoring in the corrections, the development pace still was significantly higher than the average 1.4 million acres per year during the 1982-96 period.

Delta Council endorses insurance carriers

Companies agree to contribute monetarily to regional group You could call it Delta Council's version of the "Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval." After an extensive review of the crop insurance options available to Mississippi producers, Delta Council is endorsing two crop insurance companies, which have, in turn, agreed to monetarily contribute to Delta Council.

The two companies, Fireman's Fund and IGF, have pledged their support of Delta Council membership through an agreement to pay annual membership dues to Delta Council. These dues, according to Delta Council Executive Director Chip Morgan, will be at a level that is commensurate with the current size and expanding growth of the crop insurance industry in the Mississippi Delta.

Delta Council's review of the Mississippi crop insurance industry, and its subsequent endorsements, were prompted by requests from its membership to evaluate the insurance options currently available to farmers throughout the Delta. The endorsement agreement with the crop insurance companies, Delta Council says, will not translate into any additional premium costs to farmers.

"A substantial number of our farmer-members have come to me and other Delta Council farm policy leaders to ask, `if Louisiana, Arkansas, and other farm organizations have gotten into the delivery of crop insurance, why haven't we looked at a way for Delta Council to play a role in this business," says Delta Council President Kenneth Hood of Perthshire, Miss.

"We were told by those farmers encouraging our pursuits that they either wanted us to get into the crop insurance business in a way which would return a monetary benefit to the farmer, or figure out a way for this growing business to pay its fair share in terms of membership support for Delta Council."

In an attempt to answer this question and evaluate the crop insurance delivery system in Mississippi, Delta Council established a committee of farm owners from nine Delta counties. The committee then looked into either establishing an independent crop insurance agency, establishing a cooperative similar to those operating in Arkansas and Louisiana, or establishing an endorsement agreement with existing companies in exchange for their support of Delta Council membership.

"It became apparent to us early-on during our meetings and through the presentations made to us that Delta Council had several options that were worthy of consideration, including the possible establishment of a full-blown insurance agency with marketing, sales, and administrative support," says committee member Tom Robertson of Indianola, Miss.

However, he says, "We didn't feel that Delta Council should assume either the risk or the full responsibility of managing an agency, since farmers continue to tell us they receive excellent service from the existing crop insurance agencies serving the Delta Council area."

Before deciding that the endorsement agreement was the best route for Delta Council to pursue, Robertson says, the committee first insured that such an agreement would not increase the farmer cost of crop insurance in any way.

"I liked the arrangement regarding the endorsement because it didn't involve a lot of new overhead costs and it would be an arrangement with the insurance providers rather than an exclusive arrangement with one agency that operates in the Delta," Hood says. "Once we confirmed that none of the costs associated with the endorsement would be passed back to the farmer, we wanted assurances that farmers would have the option to request their policy be written by one of several companies, instead of an exclusive arrangement with just one company. Also, we wanted to positively insure that every local crop insurance agency in the Delta would have the opportunity to participate in this arrangement on the same, equal basis."

The agreement also stipulates that Delta Council will not "engage in the administration, sales or marketing of any particular crop insurance products." The reason for this, the group says, is that because farmers and farming operations possess distinctly separate and individual needs, the purchase of risk management coverage should rest solely with each individual farmer.

Members of the Delta Council committee involved in the endorsement agreement includes: Bruce Brumfield of Inverness, Miss., Bobby Carson of Marks, Miss., Kenneth Hood of Gunnison, Miss., Frank Mitchener of Sumner, Miss., Tom Robertson of Indianola, Miss., and Mike Sturdivant Jr. of Glendora, Miss.