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Chaos theory at work: gas price spike and four-legged saboteurs

What do a raccoon and a possum have to do with a 7-cent increase in the wholesale price of gasoline on the West Coast?

As perhaps the most egregious example thus far of just how skittery these markets are, on the night of March 5, at two different locations in the Los Angeles area, within an hour of each other, two hapless animals set off this chain of events:

  • The possum, which got fried in the process, caused a power interruption at a California Edison electrical substation.
  • The raccoon, which also got cooked, interrupted power at an L.A. Water and Power substation.
  • Those events disrupted operations for about two hours at an Exxon Mobil refinery and about 10 seconds (yep, that's right: 10 seconds) at a Shell Oil Co. refinery.
  • Next morning, news of the brief refinery disruptions pushed wholesale gasoline prices up 7 cents a gallon.

Talk about chaos theory at work!

However bad we in the Mid-South have had it with a 40-cent rise in gasoline prices over the past few weeks, Californians have really felt the pain, with prices well over $3 per gallon (San Francisco had the nation's highest price at more than $3.70). Analysts are predicting that $3-and-up will be commonplace around the country as the summer driving season sets in.

This at a time when crude oil prices have been falling and OPEC ministers have been wringing their hands over declines in their zillion-dollar revenues.

The problem, we're told once again, lies with refineries. There's not enough capacity to meet constantly-growing demand, even when everything's running at better than 95 percent. When there are shutdowns — as there have been recently due to switching over to summer-grade fuels, equipment maintenance, and fires and other accidents — supplies get tight and prices go up.

Heaven help us all if a major disaster, such as a hurricane or a terrorist act, gets tossed into the equation.

There are, industry sources tell us, about 150 refineries in 33 states, the majority located in coastal areas. While capacity has been expanded at many existing sites, no new ground-up refinery has been built in the U.S. since 1976.

Oil companies have closed nearly 25 refineries since 1995, representing almost 1 million barrels per day. This, critics say, has enabled them to keep a tighter rein on supply … and price.

Public opposition — the Not In My Back Yard factor — and strict environmental regulations have helped thwart the building of new refineries. Some opponents of a $2.5 billion plant in a remote Arizona desert area have even lobbed charges of “environmental racism,” whatever that is.

But a corollary result of extremely tight capacity has been that refineries have turned into cash cows for the oil companies. “They're making money hand over fist and crying all the way to the bank,” one industry analyst says. He adds, “If you think it's bad now, you can't believe how high prices would go if a major chunk of refining capacity were taken out for a lengthy period.”

Hives abandoned Mystery malady hits U.S. honeybees

It's a mystery why U.S honeybees are abandoning hives in alarming numbers. But it's happening and if answers to the mass exodus — called colony collapse disorder — aren't found soon, the implications for agriculture will be huge.

Last summer, calls and reports from beekeepers began reaching Gary Hayes.

“Unfortunately, beekeepers have struggled over the last few years from colonies dying from introduced parasitic mites and other things,” says the president of the Apiary Inspectors of America from his Gainesville, Fla., office. “They're already kind of numb because of all the problems. But last summer, beekeepers began losing colonies for reasons that weren't quite in line with the other problems.”

Over the course of a few weeks, beekeepers noticed colony bee numbers would dwindle as the insects simply disappeared. Foragers would go out to find flowers and wouldn't come back.

“With affected hives, there are no dead or dying bees on the ground as we see with pesticide exposures or other diseases. No one can explain this behavior.”

Over time, the gradual abandonment means all that's left in a colony is a queen, a few attendants, eggs and brood (baby bees). Bees are an extremely social insects and for them to leave a colony in great numbers is very odd.

And often the few bees left behind appear to suffer from an immune system collapse. The bees seem to be susceptible to bacteria and fungi that normally would cause no bother.

“That, too, is highly unusual, and we've been trying to find the cause for several months. It seems to indicate some sort of mass immune deficiency. There are some very smart people looking for an answer, but we still haven't come up with a smoking gun that we can combat through management practices or something else. It's quite frustrating.”

Beekeeper services are vital for U.S. agriculture because there are no longer many wild honeybees.

The wild honeybee population is repopulating “a bit,” says Ed Levi, of the Arkansas State Plant Board. “But we lost a huge number of wild bees when the tracheal mite and Varroa mite came into the country. In the last 20 years, or so, we're down to less than 5 percent of the feral colonies we used to have.

“Now, that doesn't include the Africanized bees that are moving into more areas of the United States. And they have some natural resistance to the mites.” (For more on Africanized bees in Arkansas, see http://deltafarmpress.com/news/061129-africanized-bees/index.html)

The honeybee is being impacted “significantly” on many fronts, says Harry Fulton, of the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry. “And that's not good because honeybees are responsible for a third of the food we eat daily.”

As an example of what honeybees face, Hayes says to make a fist and place it next to your body.

“That's how large a Varroa mite is to a honeybee. And these mites suck a bee's blood. Obviously, that debilitates and weakens their immune systems. The mites also vector viruses that affect honeybee health.”

Normally, honeybees forage within a 2.5-mile radius of their colony. They visit flowers to collect pollen and nectar to make honey to feed themselves and their young. That means they're exposed to whatever is in the environment.

“Of course, honeybees are exposed to agricultural chemicals sprayed on crops or used systemically to control pests,” says Hayes. “Those pests are mostly insects, but so are honeybees. Even at sub-lethal levels, some of the chemicals can find their way through plant nectar and pollen to the bees.”

Researchers are also looking into any possibility that GMO crops could be playing a role in the bees' behavior. “There are some concerns about GMO crops that can produce a toxin used to battle harmful insects. Those traits are also in nectar and pollen.”

Like farmers, beekeepers have always been independent and resourceful. Even though they've grown accustomed to hive losses of 30 percent annually — primarily from Varroa mites — they've been able to survive.

“The primary way commercial beekeepers stay ahead of mites and other problems is to divide colonies and build numbers back,” says Hayes.

To illustrate how this works, Mississippi is home to “quite a few” migrant beekeepers, says Fulton. “There are probably 20,000 hives moved here each fall or winter. The beekeepers usually split them two or three times, so around 50,000 hives leave Mississippi.”

Fulton says he hopes the Mid-South — so far less affected by colony collapse disorder than other areas — will remain free of the problem. However, “it's hard to prevent something when you don't know what to avoid.”

It is now common for Hayes to hear of beekeepers losing over 50 percent of their hives to colony collapse disorder. “If you have that kind of loss, you can't build up to what you had before.”

That's led to a dwindling of colony numbers and beekeepers can't keep up.

“We've had reports of beekeepers forced out of business. They can't fulfill pollination contracts. Other businesses that normally provide queen bees are canceling orders. They don't have enough bees to work with.”

At some point, warns Hayes, “the lines on the graph will cross and there won't be enough honeybees in the United States to pollinate our crops.”

To find answers to the cause or causes of colony collapse disorder, government and university researchers are using an identification-by-elimination process.

“They're looking for things affected beekeepers don't have in common — they can assume those aren't the cause,” says Levi. “Then, of course, they're looking at what the affected operations do have in common.

“Taking all that information, they've narrowed down the possibilities. That doesn't mean the nail has been hit on the head. But all the possibilities concern stresses on the bees of some sort.”

Many of the beekeepers experiencing this problem are “commercial and large,” says Hayes. “Lots of them are migratory, moving their bees to different crops as they're needed.

“The bees seem to be stressed from either the migration or colony splits. Large beekeepers, especially, have a tendency to split colonies to make more. There's been stress from over-splitting.

“There are also concerns about sub-lethal levels of pesticides — that's a discussion we've been having for years.”

Levi says the researchers are “working as hard as they can. Recently, many went out to California to look at the bees there for the almond crop. They were able to work around a massive number of colonies. They've found the same symptoms there: beekeepers losing 30 to 80 percent of their colonies. They aren't finding many bees either in or outside affected colonies. The bees just vanish.”

Colony collapse disorder has been found in 30 states, including Hawaii, and isn't affecting beekeepers equally. Some have suffered dramatic losses — going from thousands of colonies to hundreds of colonies. Others have only had a few hives affected.

“For commercial beekeepers it does seem more dramatic because they keep such huge numbers of bees. But we have plenty of reports of the problem from smaller beekeepers and hobbyists. As spring arrives, we're now getting reports from further north.”

Is there any chance bees are leaving to set up other hives? “No, this isn't swarming or absconding,” says Levi. “A swarm is when a colony splits through asexual reproduction. When that happens, part of a colony will leave and find a home elsewhere. That's totally natural.

“Then, sometimes bees abscond. That's when conditions become so severe and difficult in a colony's area that the whole thing will leave.”

Neither of those is happening with colony collapse disorder. “With this, a strong or, at least, seemingly robust colony has foragers, older adults bees, that don't return. Then, the next generation of bees will age and do the same. Over the course of six weeks, or so, the hive is abandoned.”

Honey is a wonderful food. “But honey is a byproduct of pollination and that's the gift that honeybees really provide us,” says Hayes. “The USDA projects by 2015, the U.S. will be importing 40-something percent of our vegetables. In 50 years, it estimates, we'll be a net importer of food.”

Hayes says the bigger question from a strategic standpoint is how much U.S. food production “do we want to turn over to someone else? Would that mean we'll be in the same predicament we're now in with oil?


(Editor's note: for more information, visit http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/index.html.)

Regional research Nitrogen timing affects corn yield

With corn planting off to a good start, determining final acreage for the state is still very difficult. Last year, acreage was between 320,000 and 340,000 acres. This year the picture is much different with the range most probably being between 500,000 to 600,000 acres.

What is going to determine the final number? Seed availability and weather conditions at planting will be the primary factors.

I was asked by the Louisiana Agricultural Statistics Service what the acreage is going to be. Corn has been the hardest crop to predict.

One thing that I do know is that if the number of acres that will not be planted due to lack of seed were planted, the acreage for the state would be more than 700,000, which would have made it the largest crop since 1998.

Thus far, it has been a relatively smooth planting season. After planting, the next production practice is nitrogen fertilization. Proper nitrogen rate and optimum time of application must be considered. For example, is there a certain growth stage that should be targeted for nitrogen applications? With costs of fertilizer this year, it is imperative that nitrogen applications be made correctly and in a timely fashion.

In the Mid-South, there has been more work published on nitrogen rates than on timing of fertilizer applications. The common practice that Louisiana producers have adopted is to fertilize as early as possible due to the number of acres that are being fertilized and to allow them more time to get ready to plant other crops such as cotton, grain sorghum or soybeans.

Also, farmers often wait until emergence before applying fertilizer so that they can evaluate the stand. Because of this limited window of opportunity, corn is often fertilized at planting or soon after emergence.

Below is a summary of some of the research that has been conducted over the years on nitrogen rates and timings.

Rick Mascagni published some work in 2000 on Commerce silt loam and Sharkey clay at St. Joseph, La., evaluating nitrogen rates and application timings. On Commerce silt loam, maximum yield occurred at nitrogen rates between 150 to 200 pounds per acre, regardless of the time of fertilizer application, at-planting versus sidedress (six- to eight-leaf growth stage), in two of the three years.

Yield responses to starter fertilizer (10 pounds nitrogen per acre applied in-furrow) tended to occur primarily at the lower nitrogen rates (100 pounds of nitrogen per acre and less) and had little effect on optimal nitrogen rates.

Results of this study suggest there is little difference between applying at planting versus sidedress.

When applying the total nitrogen requirement of the plant at sidedress, there was no benefit using a nitrogen starter fertilizer. This suggests that there was adequate native soil nitrogen or carryover nitrogen for plant development between emergence and sidedress.

If nitrogen is applied sidedress, an application earlier than the six-leaf growth stage (about 30 days after emergence) will better ensure adequate fertilizer activation (availability to plants) by the time the nitrogen requirement of the plant exceeds the native soil supply.

The starter fertilizer used in these tests contained only nitrogen. Previous research in Louisiana has indicated a significant early growth response and, in some years, a yield increase from in-furrow application of starter fertilizers that contain both nitrogen and phosphorus — 10-34-0 or 11-37-0 — particularly on the more coarse-textured, sandy soils.

The Sharkey clay soil study had similar results in that neither starter nitrogen fertilizer at planting or timing of fertilizer application had an effect on optimal nitrogen rate.

Although there was a relatively wide range of yield potential across years, approximately 200 pounds of nitrogen per acre was sufficient to produce maximum yield each year.

In addition to these studies, we are in our third year of a study where nitrogen is applied according to the height of corn at the Dean Lee Research and Extension Center in Alexandria, La. The objective of the research is to determine if there is an optimal growth stage or plant height in which corn should be fertilized. The soil type is a Norwood silt loam.

Nitrogen is applied at 180 pounds per acre when corn reaches a height of 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18 or 21 inches. Statistically, there have been no differences in yield when nitrogen was applied to corn at a height of 15 inches or less.

Numerically, differences were small but yield decreased as plant height increased. Yield decreased when nitrogen was applied later to 18- and 21-inch corn. This yield decrease can most probably be attributed to root pruning.

Starter fertilizers, especially those with phosphorus, can increase plant growth and, in some years, yield.

Do not apply more than one-third of the total nitrogen application near planting or at crop emergence. The remaining fertilizer needs to be applied within about 30 days after emergence.

From the Alexandria study, nitrogen applied at the 3- to 9-inch corn stage may have a slight advantage over the other applications due to the fact that it allows the nitrogen time to be activated and made available before rapid accumulation of nitrogen begins (about the eight-leaf growth stage).

There have been lots of questions recently regarding additional nitrogen needed by a corn crop in a corn following corn rotation.

Jay Stevens, LSU AgCenter soils Extension specialist, gives a generic recommendation for a corn following corn rotation of 15 to 20 additional units of nitrogen to maximize yield.

In corn following beans and corn following cotton, he is not recommending additional nitrogen.

He does caution that this recommendation is generic and can vary greatly with soil type and the past year's environmental conditions.

Post-hurricane salinity drops in Louisiana sugarcane belt

The tidal surges accompanying hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005 deposited a considerable amount of salt throughout the coastal parishes of Louisiana. Sugarcane and rice were particularly hard hit.

A survey, conducted shortly after the water subsided in the areas planted to sugarcane, revealed soil salinity levels in several areas of six to eight times the published damage threshold level of 1,100 ppm.

Out of concern that the 2006 crop was in jeopardy, three methods were used to evaluate the effects of salinity on sugarcane production.

The first was to monitor changes in salinity and to measure yield at the original sites selected for sampling in October 2005.

Second, microbial products, designed to reduce soil salinity, were evaluated at the two highest salinity sites identified in the survey.

The third method was to sample partially flooded fields to compare soil salinity and yield levels between the submerged and the unflooded areas of the fields.

Averaged over all the sites in the initial survey, salinity decreased 69 percent from the time of the survey to the harvest season, a period of approximately one year. Sugar yield averaged 10,512 pounds per acre, based on hand-harvested samples.

All three sites that had initial salinity levels above the damage threshold had excellent yields. The one site with high salinity at harvest had the lowest yield.

Microbial products designed to reverse the negative impact of soil salinity were evaluated at the two highest soil salinity sites. While the products appeared somewhat effective in reducing salinity in the sugarcane rooting zone (both products reduced salinity more than the control), they were ineffectual in producing yields higher than that of the control plots.

The final approach was to compare sugarcane production on flooded and non-flooded areas of partially flooded fields. Fields were chosen by aerial maps, with articulated flood surge lines, and by growers' eyewitness accounts.

Although the unflooded areas produced numerically higher yields, which suggests flooding and salinity adversely affected production, the data were highly variable and treatment mean differences for all variables measured were not statistically significant.

While high soil salinity levels existed at the time of the initial survey in October 2005, rainfall was sufficiently heavy to leach much of the salt from the root zone by harvest of 2006. Average salinity was considerably below the damage threshold by the fall.

Nevertheless, when factoring in all sites across the five-parish area in which samples were taken, there was a moderate but statistically significant decrease in plant cane tonnage as salinity increased.

The association between soil salinity and yield in the stubble phase of the production cycle was not as strong.

Evaluating the effects of soil salinity on sugarcane yield was made difficult because conventional unsalted control plots were not available for comparison. Also, different rainfall amounts and the direct effects of the flood waters had confounding effects across the many locations from which data were collected.

While several high-salinity sites produced acceptable yields, there was statistical evidence that the overall trend was for soil salinity and flood waters to moderately reduce yield. It is believed, however, that the adverse effects of soil salinity were minimized by Louisiana's high rainfall environment.

At harvest, over 90 percent of the plots across all sites had soil salinity levels well below the damage threshold. The outlook for future sugarcane production in the affected areas is encouraging.

FAPRI report Oil prices weigh on ethanol

A fair number of U.S. growers, including many from the South, are hooking their wagons to corn, betting that prices for ethanol and ethanol feedstocks will remain high into the next decade.

Not only are Southern producers shifting large acreages from cotton, rice and soybeans to corn, but they are also reported to be trading in cotton pickers for combines with corn headers and building long-term storage.

What are farmers basing these decisions on other than the excitement generated by $4 and higher Chicago Board of Trade corn futures? How real is the corn “boom,” and can growers count on high returns for corn lasting beyond the next few months, experts are asking.

The answers to those questions depend on a number of factors ranging from weather to tax policies to oil prices, say economists at the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute, which recently released the 2007 agricultural economic baseline that it prepares annually for Congress.

The baseline, which is prepared by FAPRI centers at the University of Missouri-Columbia and Iowa State University, Ames, says high corn prices are expected to cause major shifts in crop production in the next two years, bringing an additional 8.4 million acres into corn in 2007.

It would mark the first time U.S. farmers have planted 85 million acres of corn since 1949. The FAPRI projection of 86.7 million acres in 2007 falls in the middle of the range of trade projections. FAPRI is projecting almost 90 million acres of corn in 2008. (The Mid-South could plant an additional 1 million acres of corn in 2007, according to Extension specialists.)

In the FAPRI baseline, expected corn use for ethanol almost doubles — to 3.16 billion bushels — in the 2007 crop year from the 2005 crop and exceeds 4 billion bushels — 32 percent of the nation's corn crop — in 2009-10.

Increasing ethanol production drives the corn price from a $2-per-bushel average in the last two crop years to slightly above $3 per bushel in every year of the 10-year baseline, which runs from 2007 to 2016.

Chicago Board of Trade corn futures currently are running above those levels, exceeding $4 per bushel as far out as 2009.

“Those prices are higher than our projections, as the market encourages producers to plant more corn to feed the growing ethanol industry,” said Pat Westhoff, the FAPRI analyst who heads up the preparation of the baseline.

“But we're also seeing some weakening in the demand for ethanol,” he said in an interview at the FAPRI offices in Columbia. “Last year, ethanol manufacturers were netting about $1.50 per gallon over operating costs. But falling ethanol prices and rising corn prices will sharply reduce net returns in 2007-08.”

In fact, the FAPRI baseline shows the value of ethanol declining in each of the years through 2016, from an average of $2.03 per gallon in 2006-07 to $1.58 per gallon in 2016-17. Net operating returns for ethanol manufacturing are expected to decline from 61 cents per gallon in 2006-07 to 28 cents in 2007-08 and to 20 cents in 2016-17.

Some weakness in ethanol demand has also been showing up on the Chicago Board of Trade where ethanol futures dipped below $2 per gallon late last year. The market has recovered some of the decline in recent weeks.

“Futures have been 30 to 40 cents off for the further out contracts, which is usually a sign of a potential weakening of demand,” said Westhoff. “They have since regained some of the decline, but the outlook still isn't as strong as it was in 2005 and 2006.”

Looking forward, Westhoff says, oil prices have been “all over the board,” ranging from as high as $65 to as low as $49.99 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange or NYMEX. “In November, during our initial review of the baseline numbers, we heard comments that our prices were too low. But then they went even lower.”

A number of factors have contributed to the dips in oil prices. Last year, China, India and the United States were factors in driving energy prices up. Now the Chinese economy appears to have begun a correction, and oil supplies have not fallen as much as predicted.

“The OPEC countries said they would cut production, but it's not believed to have been by as much as they said they would,” said Westhoff, who worked on the staff of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry before joining FAPRI.

But even if OPEC members continue pumping oil at higher-than-anticipated levels, a host of uncertainties in the oil markets could make U.S. consumers hostage to less than friendly governments in Nigeria, Iran and even Venezuela.

“So much depends on the price of petroleum,” says Westhoff. Missouri University FAPRI uses a baseline assumption that the oil price falls to $50 per barrel in 2016. (Forecasts on oil, interest rates and other macroeconomics come from the private forecasting firm, Global Insight.)

To try to develop the best picture of the factors determining corn demand, FAPRI economists analyzed 500 different outcomes using the computer models it maintains for the U.S. agricultural economy. The computer run shows prices can be much higher or much lower than averages in the baseline, depending on weather, oil prices and other factors.

In the computer model, petroleum prices averaged $80 per barrel or higher only 10 percent of the time and dropped as low as $30 with the same frequency. The average of the 500 outcomes put the price near $50 per barrel over the 10-year baseline.

U.S. ethanol production could reach 8 billion gallons and then level off if oil prices begin a lengthy decline; 12 billion to 13 billion gallons if prices remain in the $50- to $60-per-barrel range; and 18 billion gallons if oil prices climb to $80 per barrel and remain there.

The future of tax incentives could also play a major role. “Current tax policies that support biofuels are slated to expire in 2008 and 2010,” says Westhoff. “If the credits expire, the results could be sharply lower biofuel production, corn and soy oil demand and crop prices.”

Farm policy will also continue to play a role in the availability of corn for ethanol, says Abner Womack, professor of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri and FAPRI's director.

The current farm bill allows cotton farmers to receive a cotton-based direct payment of 6.7 cents per pound and a counter-cyclical payment of 13.7 cents per pound and plant corn. Corn producers, on the other hand, are not expected to receive a 2007 counter-cyclical payment because of currently high corn prices.

“The decoupling is the big factor here,” says Womack. “Using average yields, the farm programs add about $94 an acre to the amount a cotton farmer can receive above the returns from the corn market.”

The current outlook for ethanol depends on the price of corn not becoming too high, removing profits from ethanol plants, most of which are located in two or three states in the Midwest. Consumer preferences may also be a key ingredient.

Much of the increased demand for ethanol of the last two years came from the decision to phase out methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) from gasoline. “We've done that,” says Westhoff. “Now the demand depends on how high oil prices go.

“We assume you have to drop ethanol prices to get people to consume it — since ethanol has two-thirds the energy value of gasoline,” he notes. “But it may be that motorists are willing to pay a little bit of a premium for the higher octane of E-85 or other ethanol blends.”

“We also have to have places like Memphis be willing to put in the infrastructure and use ethanol blends in their cars,” said Womack. “Demand for ethanol has to move out of the Midwest and into other parts of the country.”

Tennessee, Missouri Bootheel planting larger corn acreages

As in other Mid-South states, corn acreage in Tennessee and the Missouri Bootheel is expected to rise in 2007.

While Tennessee lost corn acreage last year, Angela Thompson expects the commodity to at least “gain those acres back. That means we'll probably be back to our norm in corn acres — around 650,000.”

The Tennessee Extension corn and soybean specialist believes any move to corn will be at cotton's expense.

“The corn acres that we lost last year typically went to cotton.

“We were short about 100,000 acres of corn in 2006. And there's a chance that corn acres will be higher than 650,000.”

In the Bootheel, “I've heard that there will be a shift of 20 percent from cotton to corn,” says Gene Stevens, crop production specialist at the Delta Center in Portageville, Mo.

“After speaking with fertilizer and seed dealers that doesn't seem out of line and is probably being conservative.”

Of course, any shift will be on lesser cotton soils. “Around Kennett, Mo., and other areas where cotton is consistently two-bales, cotton acres will probably hold. The really good soils will still be in cotton. But as you get further east in the Bootheel, there's less certainty and more corn will be planted.”

Right now, some areas of Tennessee are too dry to plant corn.

“A few showers are running through right now and, if it warms up, that'll help producers wanting to start planting later this week,” says Thompson. “We've had a little corn planted but not a lot. A cold front came through (March 16-17) and that slowed down any planting. It's warmed up since so producers will get back in the field as quickly as they can.”

In Mississippi and Louisiana, moisture is also becoming an issue. “We've made tremendous corn-planting progress for this time of year,” says Erick Larson, Mississippi Extension corn and grain sorghum specialist.

“And we'd continue to if we weren't so dry… Much of the state hasn't had rain for over three weeks.”

Some Mississippi growers have been forced to water corn fields. “I don't think that's to get a crop to emerge but some have turned on center pivots and furrow-irrigated to incorporate nitrogen.”

In central and northeast Louisiana, “moisture is marginal at best,” says David Lanclos, LSU AgCenter corn and grain sorghum specialist. “A few growers have told me they're planting corn a little deeper. I haven't heard of anyone watering to get nitrogen melted in but if we don't get a rain by (the last week of March), that'll start.”

A sustained producer interest in corn has yet to clean shelves of seed. “Surprisingly, corn seed is available,” says Lanclos. “The variety may not be first pick but some good varieties are still out there. The seed guys have come through with an adequate supply.”

Louisiana is “probably 75 percent done with corn planting. When asked about acreage, I'm still saying 500,000-plus — maybe a big plus.”

In Mississippi, Larson says corn planting is “well above” 70 percent complete. “That's at least three weeks ahead of normal and we're still expecting a big bump in corn acreage.

“At this point, we're not too worried about a cold snap hurting the corn. The likelihood of having a freeze after April begins is slight. And young corn is hardy even against a hard freeze. Its growing point is underground until it's about a foot tall.”

All specialists interviewed say farmer interest in grain sorghum is higher than normal. “I have a computer program that, after entering data on a number of factors, will calculate potential profits,” says Stevens.

“Until this year, I'd never had anyone ask what the program was showing the potential for grain sorghum. I've had to change some of the numbers in the program because of the rising price of grain sorghum.

“So, there's some activity and curiosity regarding grain sorghum in the Bootheel.”

Sorghum acreage in Tennessee “is a big question mark,” says Thompson. “Claims about sorghum have bounced around all winter. However, acreage in Tennessee is usually pretty low. Around 25,000 acres of grain sorghum is good for us.”

Disaster program clears in House bill

The House passed a $124 billion supplemental appropriations bill that includes $3.7 billion in disaster assistance for farmers who experienced crop and quality losses due to adverse weather conditions in 2005, 2006 or 2007.

Most of the supplemental bill's funding - $100 billion - will go to pay for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the measure faces an almost certain veto because of the disaster assistance and other add-ons and because it sets a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2008.

House leaders said the additional funding is necessary and that much of it, including the disaster relief, should have been passed when Congress was controlled by Republicans. The Senate was scheduled to debate and vote on a version of the bill that imposes fewer restrictions on the Bush administration's conduct of the war.

“This disaster package will finally provide some relief to farmers and ranchers who have been waiting for Congress to act for more than a year,” said House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who had asked for $4.3 billion in disaster aid. That was down from the $6.5 billion Democrats sought last year.

“I told farmers And ranchers across the country that a Democratic Congress would make this a high priority, and this vote demonstrates our commitment to making good on that promise.

A House ag committee press release said Peterson worked closely with House leadership to create a program that was “disciplined and fiscally restrained.” Farmers can apply for a payment for only one of the three years and, for the first time, only farmers with crop insurance are eligible.

The disaster relief program would operate as it has in previous years if it passes muster in the House and Senate and is signed by the president. The bill would cover losses that exceed 35 percent of a producer's normal yield at two-thirds of the average commodity price. It would also contain compensation for livestock losses.

A coalition of more than 30 farm organizations, including the National Cotton Council and American Farm Bureau Federation, has been urging Congress to pass disaster assistance to help farmers recover from the hurricanes, floods, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, blizzards and freezes that caused serious damage to the full gamut of U.S. crops.

Senate Democrats have passed several versions of disaster assistance bills since the fall of 2005 but ran up against White House opposition. USDA officials have been quoted as saying they thought the legislation was unnecessary given the farm program payments made to farmers under the 2002 farm bill.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who now chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has pledged to renew his fight to enact such legislation in the current session of Congress.

Western Growers applauds new comprehensive immigration reform bill

Western Growers hailed the leadership of a bipartisan group of U.S. Representatives who have announced the introduction of the "Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007," dubbed the STRIVE Act.

Unlike the enforcement-only approach pressed by the House last year, the STRIVE Act addresses the nation's critically dysfunctional immigration system in a comprehensive manner.

The bill was authored by Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and has a bipartisan group of co-sponsors.

The key components of the bill include increased border security, an electronic employee verification system, a year-round temporary worker program, earned adjustment for the 12 million undocumented people currently in the United States, as well as the "AgJOBS" reforms that address agricultural workers.

Tom Nassif, Western Growers president and chief executive officer, said, "We are heartened to see that the House appears serious about passing comprehensive immigration reform this year. We believe that the House approach contains a viable guest worker program, deals with the country's 12 million undocumented immigrants in a humane and practical manner, and is the best solution for law enforcement, our industry, and our nation."

"We applaud Representatives Gutierrez and Flake for their leadership in advancing comprehensive immigration reform. Now it's time for the Senate to step back up to the plate."

No schedule has been determined for when the STRIVE Act will be debated in the House Judiciary Committee; however, Speaker Pelosi has expressed her desire that a debate on immigration reform should commence this spring.

"We are very pleased that the authors included AgJOBS in the STRIVE Act legislation. Clearly the authors recognize the unique needs of agriculture," said Jason Resnick, Western Growers' assistant general counsel.

"The fresh produce industry, along with the rest of labor intensive agriculture, continues to suffer from labor shortages, and we are now at the tipping point. Congress needs to fix the broken immigration system now before it's too late," he said.

Western Growers is an agriculture trade association whose members grow, pack and ship ninety percent of the fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in California and seventy five percent of those commodities in Arizona. This totals about half of the nation's fresh produce.

Leafy greens marketing agreement board accepts metrics for verification program

With a unanimous vote on March 23, the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Board of Directors accepted the metrics to be used in the marketing agreement’s verification program.

The metrics, which are guidelines for good agricultural practices (GAP) to be followed by marketing agreement signatories, were proposed by a coalition of leafy greens industry members, and were reviewed and endorsed by food science experts in academia and government. A link to the metrics may be found at www.cdfa.ca.gov

“We recognize and appreciate the numerous GAP initiatives coming forward from trade organizations and private companies,” said marketing agreement board chairman Joe Pezzini. “However, the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement program is the only initiative that will incorporate on-site field inspections that are conducted by a government inspection and verification entity. The California Department of Food and Agriculture will be using state and federal inspectors trained by the USDA.”

The Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement’s role is to verify and certify that signatories are following industry's guidelines, using a USDA-designed inspection program in use across the country, and CDFA inspectors.

The fiscal year for the marketing agreement will begin on April 1. At that time, signatory handlers will be assessed two cents per carton for operation of the agreement, which is administered by CDFA. Handlers must sign-up by March 31 to participate.

To date, 54 handlers representing 98 percent of leafy greens produced in California have signed up for the marketing agreement.

More than meets the eye in farm bill debate, K-State’s Flinchbaugh says

Barry Flinchbaugh leaves little doubt where his loyalties lie when the wizened “gnome of Manhattan” gives one of his two-hour tours de force on the past, present and future of U.S. farm policy.

The Kansas State University professor notes that he’s had roughly 3,500 students during a career that began in Manhattan, in Kansas, in 1971. “That’s all the purple pride,” he says. “I don’t own a white shirt.”

Flinchbaugh also leaves little doubt that he is clearly in the farmer’s corner no matter what his own feelings might be about the farm programs growers have enjoyed over the last 80 years. The latter include some opinions on payment limits that might surprise his peers.

“It’s popular today to cuss the farm bill; it’s popular today to cuss ag policy,” Flinchbaugh barks. “And, frankly, I wish some of those people would just shut up. For what farm policy and what farm bills have been designed to do they have been successful. And I will defend them … vigorously.

“Would I change them? Certainly. But they have been based historically on price supports, income supports, land retirement and stored reserves. You can quarrel with what they were designed to do, but the facts are they have done what they were designed to do.”

Flinchbaugh, a speaker at the joint annual meetings of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants and American Society of Agricultural Consultants in Atlanta, listed three primary accomplishments for farm programs:

• They have decreased the pain of adjustment to new technology. “They give us time to adjust, and they put a floor under farm income,” he noted.

• “Contrary to popular opinion, they have benefited the medium-sized farmers the most, and have kept medium-sized farmers in business.”

• “The benefits of those farm programs have been capitalized into land values and helped build a collateral base under U.S. agriculture.”

Flinchbaugh, who earned his doctorate at Purdue University when former Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz was a professor there, has been alternately praised and blamed as one of the authors of Freedom to Farm, the nickname given the 1996 farm bill.

“By circumstance and luck, I found myself in a very unique position because the chairman of the House ag committee was Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas” he said. “The majority leader in the U.S. Senate was Bob Dole from Kansas. And the secretary of agriculture was Dan Glickman, a Democrat from Kansas.

“We got that farm bill passed, and, immediately, we heard freedom to fail, not freedom to farm. Well, the answer to that comment is very straightforward and simple: If you want to have the freedom to farm, you have to have the guts to take the responsibility for freedom to fail.”

Some have said the 2002 farm bill “killed” Freedom to Farm, but Flinchbaugh disagrees. “We added to it,” he said. “We did not decrease the direct payments. We didn’t decrease flexibility. We kept all that in there, and then we added this counter-cyclical price program, which Grandfather Flinchbaugh would have described as — backwards.”

The economist, who was chairman of the Commission on 21st Century Agriculture prior to passage of the 1996 law, says the interesting point about the counter-cyclical program is that “it pays farmers when they don’t need it and doesn’t pay them when they do. It’s — backwards.”

Any discussion of the 2007 farm bill has to begin with the federal budget, he says. While higher grain and oilseed prices have led to decreased spending on commodity programs, Flinchbaugh argues Congress shouldn’t write the next farm bill based on the near-term outlook.

While the annual figures have been all over the board (from a high of $32.2 billion in 2000 to a low of $4.7 billion in 1996), USDA has averaged spending about $20 billion a year on commodity programs. The estimate for fiscal 2007 is $16.4 billion.

“We will again in history spend $20 billion on farm programs,” he says. “Not in 2007, probably not in 2008, but sometime in the next five years we will spend $20 billion on farm programs again.”

Flinchbaugh describes the hand wringing over the growing federal budget deficit as “pure crap.”

“We’ve been through all this before. They come home and say, ‘Oh, look at these deficits. They’re terrible.’ Then, they’ll go back to Washington and find the money. Then they’ll say, ‘Well boys, we saved you again,’ and get re-elected.”

The federal budget deficit, though projected at $354 billion for fiscal 2007, “is irrelevant in the farm bill debate,” he said. “Yet it will take up more ink probably than any other issue.”

When compared to President Bush’s proposed $2.9 trillion budget for fiscal 2008, Flinchbaugh said with a twinkle in his eye, “I’m not sure, but I understand $20 billion would be an acceptable accounting error.”

What happens if Congress decides to taken the deficit seriously and makes wholesale cuts to farm programs? The Plains states, including Kansas, and some Southern states would be devastated, says Flinchbaugh.

A study by two Kansas State economists shows that 14 states running through the High Plains down through Texas and into Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi would see at least a 30 percent decrease in land values if the current programs were eliminated. The biggest drops would occur in North Dakota (44.5 percent) and Oklahoma (45.3 percent).

“Some say, ‘But you’re assuming that the farm program payments would be fully capitalized into land values at 100 percent,’” he said. “Fine, let’s assume 50 percent. So then you have an 18-percent decrease in Kansas, 22.5 percent in Oklahoma.”

Congress should be able to write a farm program that doesn’t get capitalized into land values, he said. “And we ought to target it to medium-sized farmers. We don’t like large farmers. They don’t do anything for us except feed us.”

Former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman once told him economists should be able to write farm programs that wouldn’t be capitalized into land values, Flinchbaugh said. “I told him, fine, target these payments to medium-sized farmers, and we’ll trade about 100,000 of them on paper the next day.”

Flinchbaugh said he believes the current debate over payment limitations is a “farce.”

For months, anyone who has been paying attention to the farm bill debate has heard that 10 or some other small percentage of farmers receive 80 percent or 90 percent of the farm payments. Such claims make good fodder for editorial writers at the New York Times and the Washington Post, but they aren’t true, according to Flinchbaugh.

“We have 2.1 million farms,” he says. “Small farms make up 84 percent of that, small being defined as gross sales of less than 100,000. They produce 21 percent of the food supply, but they receive 30.5 percent of the payments. They make out like pigs. Is that what you’ve heard before?

“Now look at these big boys that we don’t like (with sales of more than $500,000), they make up 3.8 percent of the farmers, produce half the food supply and receive 27 percent of the payments.”

Medium-sized farmers, on the other hand, make up 12.2 percent of the farms, produce 28 percent of the domestically grown food supply and receive 42.7 percent of the payments.

“These programs are designed for the medium-sized farmers,” he said. “They’ve done what they were supposed to do. So what’s the issue? It’s a farce.”

email: flaws@farmpress.com