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Articles from 2002 In May


More Grassley amendments in the wings?

Although the farm bill passed by decisive margins in both the House and Senate, Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, authors of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment, have said they will re-introduce the amendment for the annual agricultural appropriations bill.

“I think we have to be very pleased that enough folks realized that it would have undermined the integrity of the entire bill if you imposed the punitive limitations that were suggested on the floor of the Senate this year,” said Cochran.

“We must be on the alert and be aware that such an amendment could be raised at any time on any bill that’s going through the Senate.”

Speaking at a press conference following his keynote address at the Delta Council annual meeting at Delta State University, Cochran said he was happy to have another farm bill behind him.

A member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Cochran was one of the three Republican senators on the House-Senate conference committee that spent 10 weeks working on the final version of the farm bill.

“I’m glad we got it all worked out,” he said. “It’s a six-year bill, which means we don’t have to revisit the fundamental provisions as a whole for six more years. At any time, somebody can offer an amendment to change any one part of it. But I’m hopeful we will be able to prevail against any amendment that might be offered.”

Some analysts had expected Grassley or Dorgan to offer their amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill that is now winding its way through Congress. Cochran, the ranking member on the agricultural appropriations subcommittee, said that had not been the case.

“During the markup of the supplemental in the full committee, there weren’t any amendments offered on that subject,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a subject that is going to go away, and we’re going to have to continue to deal with that as a possible change in existing law.”

The senator said he remembers having to deal with payment limits when he first became chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee several years ago.

“I had to get all the votes I could in a meeting of that committee to defeat a limitation of $20,000 that was offered by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan,” he noted. “He didn’t want any payment to any farmer to exceed $20,000 a year. If you go back in time, you can probably find other efforts made by other members of Congress to impose very severe payment limitations.”

Since Cochran’s speech, Iowa’s Sen. Grassley, a Republican, has said that he and Dorgan, a Democrat, would try to attach their amendment to the annual agricultural appropriations bill for the 2003 fiscal year.

The new farm bill President Bush signed on May 13 places a limit of $360,000 per year on the various payments that any farmer can receive on a single farming operation. The legislation continues the three-entity rule and allows producers to request generic commodity certificates when they exceed the limit on loan deficiency payments.

The Grassley-Dorgan amendment, initially approved by the Senate, would have limited a farmer and his wife to $275,000 in annual payments, eliminated the three-entity rule and made it impossible for producers to use generic certificates. A $2.5 million adjusted gross income means test in the Grassley amendment made it into the farm bill.

“The so-called reform that finally passed won’t even make big corporate farmers blink,” Grassley was quoted as saying at a Washington press conference.

Delta Council members applauded the work of Sen. Cochran and other members of the Mississippi congressional delegation for their efforts on behalf of the farm bill.

“The economic condition of Delta agriculture over the past five years has deteriorated in a way which reflects the overall condition of agriculture throughout America,” said Cliff Heaton, Delta Council vice president and a farmer from Clarksdale, Miss.

“Although this sift in national farm policy, alone does not ensure the viability of U.S. agriculture, Delta Council views that the new six-year legislation is up to the challenges of falling exports, a strong dollar in overseas markets and sophisticated barriers being imposed by our trading partners.

Delta Council leaders also thanked outgoing President Ben Lamensdorf for leading the organization’s efforts to help write the new farm bill.

“With the challenges of writing new farm bill legislation combined with the emphasis Ben has placed on education, healthcare and other emerging issues of Delta Council, I personally feel that history will be very kind and flattering to the year of Ben Lamensdorf as our Delta Council president,” said Bryan Jones, the new Council president and a banker and farmer from Yazoo City, Miss.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com

More Grassley limits in the wings?

Although the farm bill passed by decisive margins in both the House and Senate, Sens. Charles Grassley of Iowa and Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, authors of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment, have said they will re-introduce the amendment for the annual agricultural appropriations bill.

“I think we have to be very pleased that enough folks realized that it would have undermined the integrity of the entire bill if you imposed the punitive limitations that were suggested on the floor of the Senate this year,” said Cochran.

“We must be on the alert and be aware that such an amendment could be raised at any time on any bill that’s going through the Senate.”

Speaking at a press conference following his keynote address at the Delta Council annual meeting at Delta State University, Cochran said he was happy to have another farm bill behind him.

A member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Cochran was one of the three Republican senators on the House-Senate conference committee that spent 10 weeks working on the final version of the farm bill.

“I’m glad we got it all worked out,” he said. “It’s a six-year bill, which means we don’t have to revisit the fundamental provisions as a whole for six more years. At any time, somebody can offer an amendment to change any one part of it. But I’m hopeful we will be able to prevail against any amendment that might be offered.”

Some analysts had expected Grassley or Dorgan to offer their amendment to the supplemental appropriations bill that is now winding its way through Congress. Cochran, the ranking member on the agricultural appropriations subcommittee, said that had not been the case.

“During the markup of the supplemental in the full committee, there weren’t any amendments offered on that subject,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s a subject that is going to go away, and we’re going to have to continue to deal with that as a possible change in existing law.”

The senator said he remembers having to deal with payment limits when he first became chairman of the agricultural appropriations subcommittee several years ago.

“I had to get all the votes I could in a meeting of that committee to defeat a limitation of $20,000 that was offered by Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan,” he noted. “He didn’t want any payment to any farmer to exceed $20,000 a year. If you go back in time, you can probably find other efforts made by other members of Congress to impose very severe payment limitations.”

Since Cochran’s speech, Iowa’s Sen. Grassley, a Republican, has said that he and Dorgan, a Democrat, would try to attach their amendment to the annual agricultural appropriations bill for the 2003 fiscal year.

The new farm bill President Bush signed on May 13 places a limit of $360,000 per year on the various payments that any farmer can receive on a single farming operation. The legislation continues the three-entity rule and allows producers to request generic commodity certificates when they exceed the limit on loan deficiency payments.

The Grassley-Dorgan amendment, initially approved by the Senate, would have limited a farmer and his wife to $275,000 in annual payments, eliminated the three-entity rule and made it impossible for producers to use generic certificates. A $2.5 million adjusted gross income means test in the Grassley amendment made it into the farm bill.

“The so-called reform that finally passed won’t even make big corporate farmers blink,” Grassley was quoted as saying at a Washington press conference.

Delta Council members applauded the work of Sen. Cochran and other members of the Mississippi congressional delegation for their efforts on behalf of the farm bill.

“The economic condition of Delta agriculture over the past five years has deteriorated in a way which reflects the overall condition of agriculture throughout America,” said Cliff Heaton, Delta Council vice president and a farmer from Clarksdale, Miss.

“Although this sift in national farm policy, alone does not ensure the viability of U.S. agriculture, Delta Council views that the new six-year legislation is up to the challenges of falling exports, a strong dollar in overseas markets and sophisticated barriers being imposed by our trading partners.

Delta Council leaders also thanked outgoing President Ben Lamensdorf for leading the organization’s efforts to help write the new farm bill.

“With the challenges of writing new farm bill legislation combined with the emphasis Ben has placed on education, healthcare and other emerging issues of Delta Council, I personally feel that history will be very kind and flattering to the year of Ben Lamensdorf as our Delta Council president,” said Bryan Jones, the new Council president and a banker and farmer from Yazoo City, Miss.

e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com

Corn helps red rice control, profits

L.D. Vaughn says he has two good reasons for growing corn this year, one expected and one just developing. The planned reason he planted corn is for control of red rice. The second reason — potentially higher prices for corn — wasn't in preseason plans, but Vaughn isn't going to turn any extra cash away.

Vaughn works about 2,000 acres with his wife and son outside Searcy, Ark. “I was born here 60 years ago and haven't been away for more than two weeks at a time for my entire life. I don't know much, but I know my land,” says Vaughn with a smile.

In addition to the 250 acres of corn Vaughn planted this year, he'll farm 700 acres of rice, 300 acres of wheat, 1,000 acres of soybeans, tend a fishpond, work 100 mama cows and look after 400 acres of pine trees.

“We've got just about everything but money!” he says.

Water availability in the area is bad and always has been, says Vaughn. Wells produce a “dribble.” To help with irrigation, Vaughn utilizes two reservoirs — 24 acres and 17 acres at about 18 feet deep.

Around 80 percent of Vaughn's land is precision-leveled at two-tenths every 100 feet. He and his son have been working on leveling land for the past decade.

“We've just about got it whipped. We do all the dirt work ourselves and hire out very little. Doing good dirt work takes time and that's something we just don't have enough of.”

Red rice is a problem that vexes rice growers throughout the Delta and Vaughn is no exception. To combat the weed he turned to something more and more farmers are adopting: crop rotation with corn.

“Anyone who raises rice has red rice. I've gone with corn to help for two years now. I've done it before, but when aflatoxin hit corn bad a few years ago, I cut back. But the red rice got so bad again, we had to do something and corn was it.”

Vaughn goes with a three-year rotation of corn, rice and soybeans. The rotation is working well so far.

“One year of corn seems to get rid of red rice. See, with corn, you get that red rice twice in a year: once in the spring with atrazine and once in the fall. When you're through harvesting, you can work the ground and let the red rice come up. It doesn't have time to grow seed before the cold knocks it out.”

Besides helping with red rice, Delta corn producers could benefit financially from prolonged rains hitting the Midwest. In the eastern part of the Corn Belt, reports are that farmers haven't been able to get into fields since Easter or before.

Of course, the Delta isn't immune to flood waters — once the Mississippi River hits flood stage, crops on the riverside of the levee will be underwater. Profiting off others' misery isn't appealing, but the possibility remains.

Even the later planting of many Delta cornfields may play to farmers' advantage. In many areas of Arkansas, it was mid-April before soil temperatures hit 55 degrees, safe enough to plant corn. Many growers fretted that it was getting too late when, in actuality, soil temperatures had never gotten high enough to plant.

“You shouldn't plant by date, but by soil temperature,” says William Johnson, Arkansas Extension corn specialist. “We've got farmers who plan to plant Bt corn up through June 1. That's not a bad idea. Last year, research in the state showed that May 15 corn out-yielded April 15 corn.”

Vaughn tries to take advantage of local opportunities to market his crop. The huge influx of poultry operations in the area is one way he does that.

“I market my corn at a local co-op for feed. That's where my grain bins come in (Vaughn has a handful of bins that store about 70,000 bushels). I'm able to store corn and sell it as demand comes. By doing that, I'm getting CBOT prices plus a premium. The co-op even picks up the corn.”

The “chicken business” is booming, says Vaughn. As a result, area corn acreage has increased.

With well over a billion birds in the state, it was only a matter of time before farmers started looking at corn seriously, says Johnson. Over their lifetime, the birds eat between 5 pounds and 8 pounds of feed. That translates to a lot of business for corn farmers. Just to supply the Arkansas poultry industry at current average yields, it would take 1.2 million to 1.3 million acres of corn, says Johnson. “We're wide open to the corn-growing possibilities.”

One problem in taking advantage of chickens' need to feed is lack of on-farm bin space in the state. The poultry industry doesn't use grain bins, preferring instead to use parked rail cars.

“If the state could ever get tax breaks or something for both farmers and the poultry industry, we could grow a lot more corn,” says Johnson.

That wouldn't just be good for the collective bottom line, but also for many of the state's soils. That's especially true of rice and soybean soils that often have a dearth of organic matter.

“Corn gives a lot back to the soil with organic matter and nutrients. If you fertilize corn properly, when it comes time to rotate soybeans or rice, very little needs to be done. Rice behind corn needs some nitrogen and soybeans will often just use what corn leaves behind. It's an awesome rotation,” says Johnson.


email: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.

Arkansas water users face legal issues

State water issues haven’t been keyed on until recently because Arkansas has always had the appearance of containing ample resources. But now, the cracks in that façade are starting to show.

“People are learning we don’t have all the water we need and we’re going to have to do something about it,” says John Edwards, head of the White River Irrigation District (WRID) in the state’s Grand Prairie region.

When it comes to surface water use, Arkansas relies on a “reasonable use riparian doctrine.” You’re considered a “riparian” if you own land that’s immediately adjacent to a river, a stream or a watercourse.

“If you’re a riparian, you can use that water for your purposes on the land you own that’s on the river or stream. But if you’re not a riparian, with few exceptions, you don’t have a legal right to use that water,” says Edwards.

Harris v. Brooks

In 1955, the Arkansas Supreme Court made a landmark ruling in a case titled Harris v. Brooks.

“It’s one of my favorite cases because in it there’s a line that says: ‘It’s common knowledge that sometimes fish stop biting for no apparent good reason.’ I love a court case with some real common wisdom in it,” says Edwards.

Fishing aside, the case says if you’re a riparian, you have a right to ‘reasonable use’ of water as long as it doesn’t harm your neighbor. If you cause your neighbor to lose access to water, then your neighbor has the right to contest your use.

The unfortunate thing about this case, is it didn’t define what “reasonable” is, says Edwards. “The only way to determine ‘reasonable use’ currently is to resort to litigation. We haven’t had a lot of those cases yet. But they’re coming.”

The same principal applies in use of ground water. In Arkansas, when it comes to either surface or ground water, people have what’s called “correlative rights.” If you have a well on your farm, you have a right to use that well. But if the day comes when the use of your well causes your neighbor’s well problems, he can take you to court.

While guaranteeing reasonable use, many people will be surprised that Arkansas law doesn’t recognize ownership of water.

“Some people may say, ‘As long as I can use it, it doesn’t matter if I own it – that’s just semantics.’ But you own your car and can do what you want with it. If you own land, you control the dirt. You have the opportunity to control the land and rights support that. There aren’t nearly the number of rights to water that many think,” says Edwards.

Many hoops to jump through

Based on a period from around 1940 to 1986, the Clarendon White River gauge shows there are 7 trillion gallons that typically flow through annually, says Edwards. But unless you own land right on the river, you’re out of luck in having a legal mechanism for removing water from the river.

In 1985, the Arkansas General Assembly passed “one of the most important pieces of legislation ever in the state”: Act 1051. The act did many things, but principally provided a mechanism under state law that a non-riparian could, through a process with the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission, apply for a “non-riparian permit.” Most permits go to organizations like irrigation and water districts.

These permits describe in very precise language the amount of water that can be diverted from the rivers or streams. They describe the flow per second at which water may be removed and other restrictions.

Another reason that 1051 is important is that under the old riparian law, very few people ever truly benefited from waters of rivers and streams. If you weren’t on a stream or river, you were out of luck. The old laws, in essence, forced people to have to use ground water in lieu of surface water.

“Well, now we have an opportunity to equalize use between riparian and ground water.

Prior to Act 1051, there were concerns that withdrawals made for irrigation from rivers and streams would be harmful. So the law has some very specific provisions that address how (state agencies) determine how much water is available for irrigation.”

First, the law requires that state agencies determine the needs for current domestic water users, water quality, fish and wildlife and navigation. All those needs must be considered before any water is declared, “excess.” Further, the foreseeable water needs 30 years into the future must be studied and declared before any determination is made to excess.

Second, the state limits use of excess water by allowing only 25 percent of the total to be utilized for irrigation purposes. So 75 percent of the excess can’t be touched.

“It’s important for folks to realize that any irrigation district must go through many procedures, review and safeguards before taking the first drop of water out of a river or stream.”

A question of balance

It’s all a question of balance, says Edwards. As a state, Arkansas probably gets around 93 percent of water needs met by groundwater.

“That’s not good. One way or the other, we must balance that out. We’re fortunate that alluvial aquifers will recharge. If we don’t take the pressure off by 2015, it will be devastating for eastern Arkansas particularly. But the whole state will suffer. We can’t continually have a situation where water resources aren’t balanced.”

If the state does nothing, when the day arrives – “and it’s coming” – when aquifers are depleted, neighbor will be pitted against neighbor. That isn’t a terribly appealing prospect, says Edwards.

This scenario has already played out in many western states.

“That’s why some western states adopted a ‘prior appropriation’ theory of water law. I hope Arkansas doesn’t have to do that. But the theory says everyone is given a permit and allowed ‘X’ number of acre-feet of water. Once they hit their limit, water is cut off. Everything is very certain because there’s scarce rainfall and fewer of the water benefits this state has. If we’re not careful and don’t balance our use, Arkansas may soon have the same kind of laws.”

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com

Search for cheapness: Where does it end?

Okay, so what happens when the world finally runs out of dirt-cheap labor? Will all the U.S. companies that have moved their manufacturing facilities and jobs to other countries one day have no place to flee because no place else is cheap enough?

I suppose not. There are probably enough Third World and underdeveloped countries left — where labor is $5 or $2 a day or less, “bennies” are non-existent, and there are no EPA/OSHA equivalents — to enable this shell game to continue for a long, long time, all the while exporting more and more U.S. jobs overseas.

On a recent interminably boring flight from L.A. to Memphis, while trying to shield myself from all the germs radiating from the guy behind me who was hacking, coughing, and sneezing every five seconds, and being entertained by the piercing wails and screams of what must have been half the infant population of several states, I had an intermittent conversation with my seatmate, an importer/exporter based in the Far East, returning home for a few weeks.

Between his bouts of grogginess from two days-plus on airplanes, he talked about doing business in China and all the products he's having manufactured there for U.S. clients.

“I used to do a lot of business in Mexico,” he said. “Labor was cheap, the work was good, and transportation to the U.S. wasn't that big a deal. But Mexico priced itself out of the labor market, so now I'm operating mostly in China. Labor's cheap and plentiful, the quality of the work is good, and they're anxious to do business and get our dollars.”

Among the products he imports, he said, is a small Chinese-made tractor that's finding favor with weekend hobby “farmers” and with the lawn/garden set. “Even with all the shipping costs, it's significantly cheaper than U.S. or Japanese models,” he said. “There's not much of anything they can't make — cheaper than just about anybody in the world.”

Meantime, the Commerce Department was reporting the U.S. trade deficit for the first three months of this year at an annual rate of $367 billion. While that's down from last year's recession and 9/11 setback, the figure could end up higher as America's economy recovers and demand for imports rises. Except for March, when Japan edged ahead slightly, China has for the past two years been the country with which the United States has the biggest trade deficit ($5.6 billion in March). That number one status is likely to hold as the flood of Chinese imports into the United States continues. Other major deficits for the month were with Mexico, a record $3.46 billion, and Canada, $3.9 billion.

While the Bush administration continued to push for “fast track” authority to make trade deals, saying it will save consumers money by making cheaper products available, labor and environmental groups countered that it would result in even more U.S. job losses and reductions in wages as more people scramble for fewer, lower-paying jobs. They contend, too, that U.S. trade policy encourages sweatshop labor, exploitation of children, and environmental harm.

But hey, as long as it's cheap…


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.

Farm bill will help stabilize agriculture

The newly-enacted farm bill gives the nation's farmers a “more predictable, more effective financial safety net,” Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said at the 67th annual meeting of the Delta Council.

“It will make government support more stable and predictable from year to year,” he told the hundreds of farmers and business, civic, education, and government leaders attending the council's yearly down-home get-together on the campus of Delta State University at Cleveland, Miss.

Cochran, who has been a major force in farm legislation during his years in the Senate, and Delta Council president and farmer Kenneth Hood, recently joined President George W. Bush for the signing of the new bill.

“This legislation will continue the marketing loan program and commodity certificates, as well as the fixed payments that were part of the 1996 farm bill,” he noted. “Most importantly, it also establishes a newly-designed target price mechanism, allows for updated crop bases and payment yields, and offers farmers numerous options for updating their individual operations.

“It will also help protect our natural resources by providing an 80 percent increase in funding for conservation programs, increasing the enrollment cap for both the Conservation Reserve Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program, and authorizing the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program at $700 million, compared to only $50 million in the 1996 bill.”

In keeping with the traditional catfish lunch served at Delta Council Day, Cochran cited the successful inclusion of a provision to prohibit Basa fish imported from Vietnam being labeled and sold as farm-raised catfish. The industry has been up in arms over loss of sales and harm to their product's image by the inferior fish imports.

“Catfish farmers in the Mississippi Delta have spent over $50 million to establish a market for farm-raised catfish, and this will help to insure a safe fish product for American consumers.”

Emphasizing the importance of exports to agriculture, Cochran said the legislation reauthorizes programs to increase market access abroad.

“Twenty-five percent of U.S. farm income is generated by exports, so access to these markets is critical to the livelihood of our farmers.” Ag exports are expected to top $50 billion this year, up from $40.2 billion in 1990.

Last year, he said, Mississippi exported more than $1.8 billion worth of agricultural and manufactured goods. “If we increase our exports, we can also increase the number of jobs in the Delta.”

A “strong commitment to rural development” is evidenced in the $360 million authorized to eliminate the backlog of pending applications for grants and loans in water/wastewater assistance programs within the USDA, he said. “This will greatly assist those rural communities that are facing emergency drinking water shortages.”

Now that the new farm program's in place, Cochran said, there's more work to be done.

“First, it's time for the death tax to be permanently repealed, and second, this Congress must provide Trade Promotion Authority, or ‘fast track,’ to President Bush.”

Another “important challenge,” he said, is “sorting out requests for federal funds and making rational decisions about how to allocate the limited amount of resources.”

In a boost for Delta and U.S. agriculture, Cochran noted that the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee last year approved $16 million in funding for a National Biological Control Laboratory to be located at Stoneville, Miss.

“This facility is the first of its kind in the world, and will allow scientists to experiment with beneficial insects for both pest control and weed control. Not only will this research be useful for farmers, the new facility will also provide 50 new jobs for the area.”

And, he said, earlier this year the Delta Health Initiative was established, involving a partnership between the Delta Council, the Delta Regional Authority, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Mississippi State University, and Delta State University.

“This is a concerted effort to increase access to health care services, conduct research on health problems specific to the Delta, and educate patients regarding their health. By bringing all these leaders together, we can make progress toward a healthier Delta.”

Education, too, will get additional emphasis, Cochran said, through the Delta Education Initiative, which began two years ago with $35 million in federal funding. The program is aimed at addressing an acute teacher shortage by awarding scholarships to Delta State University for education majors who meet grade point requirements and agree to teach in Delta area schools upon graduation.

The National Warmwater Aquaculture Center is now operating at full capacity, he said, with research directed toward helping farmers cope with catfish diseases.

“The new genetically modified catfish, which grows 10 percent to 20 percent faster, has become a success, and the center is now engaged in freshwater shrimp research.”

Noting that this year marks the 75th anniversary of the worst flood in U.S. history, the Mississippi River flood of 1927, Cochran said flood control projects in the Yazoo River Basin are “moving forward and showing results.”

The Upper Steele Bayou channel enlargement project will be completed this year, he said, providing protection for the city of Greenville, Miss., for the first time since the 1927 flood. The Yazoo Backwater Area Project, designed to provide flood relief to some 1,500 square miles of the south Delta, received $4 million in funding last year, “and I will work to insure additional funding in this next fiscal year.”

The new farm bill, Cochran said, includes $275 million for the Small Watershed Dam Rehabilitation Program to improve aging facilities built over the past 50 years. And, he noted, the new Highway 82 bridge across the Mississippi River will continue to receive federal funding until it is completed. “I've requested an additional $100 million this year for construction of the Mississippi and Arkansas approaches to the bridge and to remove the old bridge.”

He said the Mid-Continent Corridor, commonly known as I-69, is proceeding on schedule. Highway 304, which connects Hernando and Robinsonville, Miss., has been designated the official route for I-69 through that area. With environmental studies complete, Cochran said he has requested $27 million for construction and paving of a newly-designed Highway 304. And an additional $2 million has been requested this year to complete improvements to the Greenwood, Miss., industrial park, which received $2 million in funds last year.

Paying tribute to the U.S. military for defending the principles of liberty and freedom on which his country was founded, Cochran said fiscal year 2002 defense appropriations bills provided over $10 million for military projects at Batesville, Miss., and Camp McCain near Grenada, Miss.


e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com.

Midwest floods will affect prices

Forecasters say that on May 25 the Mississippi will crest at around 37 feet (3 feet above flood stage). That's the highest level in over five years (when the river rose to over 40 feet in Memphis) and it could go even higher if forecasted rains appear.

“The Midwest (which is experiencing flood conditions similar to 1995, when corn reached $5) will probably have 2 million to 3 million acres less corn acres planted. That should mean better prices for Delta corn,” says William Johnson, Arkansas Extension corn specialist. “If corn gets up to $3 per bushel and you can make 150 bushels, that's $450 gross for a $260 input. That's fair money.

“The Delta doesn't have the problems the Midwest is having, but we're not escaping the excess water either. The White River is set to overflow its banks again this weekend (May 17-19). Missouri got a lot of rain that will impact Arkansas rivers very soon.”

From Corning to Clarendon, the wheat crops planted beside the river are going to get wet yet again. And farmers who have sown rice in the backwater will have to deal with flooded fields, too.

Midwest flooding could also mean that Delta soybean prices will be in for a rough summer. The area best-known for producing great corn won't be able to plant much of it and will likely go with soybeans instead.

“There could be an additional 2 million acres of soybeans,” says Johnson.

Twin-row planter cut costs, boosts yield

Searching for ways to further cut input costs and improve yields, several Greenwood, Miss.-area farmers are evaluating precision planting of corn, soybeans, and cotton, using an 8-row, twin-row planter.

The crops are planted in twin rows with a staggered seed drop, which research indicates allows more growing room for plants and a better canopy than standard rows.

Plants and their roots can spread over a larger area, allowing plants to catch more sunlight and gain better access to nutrients, with fewer diseases, all resulting in healthier, more uniform crops and improved yields.

“I'm always looking for a better way to get maximum yield with reduced inputs,” says Bo Prestidge, one of the growers who used the Monosem twin-row planter for 400 acres of his 1,800 acres of soybeans.

“This planter is so precise, you could space seed 2.7 inches apart — or any other spacing you want. With it, we planted 36 pounds of soybean seed per acre, compared to 50 pounds conventionally or 60-70 pounds for narrow row. The twin row planting will allow us to direct-spray less area, reducing chemical costs by as much as one-third. And we can irrigate more uniformly, with an all-around better growing environment.

“With the precise, staggered twin rows, every plant can develop to its maximum potential,” Prestidge says. “Sometimes, with conventional or drilled beans, the plants end up competing against each other. Those fields may look prettier — but it's the bottom line that counts.

“With the higher costs for Roundup Ready technology, additional chemical costs, etc., we have to constantly look for ways to save money. With Roundup Ready soybean seed at $27 for 50 pounds, if I can cut my seeding rate to 35 pounds, as opposed to 50 pounds, that's a substantial savings — particularly if I can get the same or higher yields. Even with conventional seed at $16, by the time you multiply it across hundreds of acres, there's potential for significant cost cuts by going to a lower, more precise seeding rate.”

Jay Rose, sales representative for Johnson Implement Co., Greenwood, Miss., said his company started handling Monosem's standard planters four years ago and a number of growers in the Delta are using them. But nobody was using the twin-row model, and “we wanted to get one and make it available for growers so they could see what it does and make comparisons in their own fields.”

He said the company is renting the planter to growers this year, but “we'll probably buy it so we can continue to offer it next season.” He expects that 1,000 acres-plus of corn, soybeans, and cotton will be planted with it this season. One farmer has indicated using it to plant some milo.

“The planter is extremely precise,” Rose says. “There's just nothing else like it out there. You pick the spacing you want, and it'll put every seed at that exact spacing, regardless of seed size.” He says the planter is widely used in vegetable crops, where seed are very expensive and precision planting is needed to get maximum returns. It is adaptable to narrow row, ultra-narrow-row, twin rows, wide rows, flat surfaces, and beds.

Prestidge, who farms “all over Leflore County (Miss.)” and was named Mississippi's Soybean Farmer of the Year for 2002, also has 1,000 acres of rice, leases out 500 acres of cotton land and 500 acres of catfish ponds, and owns and manages Wildlife, Inc., a duck/deer hunting operation on some 40,000 acres that he leases from surrounding farmers.

“We farmers too often tend to be set in our ways,” he says. “What has worked for us over the years, we tend to keep on doing. But today, anyone who's not willing to try new technologies and methods is standing still — or falling behind.

“We'd been looking at the potential in twin-row planting for several years,” he says, “but no farmer is going to invest that kind of money in a piece of equipment without knowing what it can do for him. When Jay and Johnson Implement made this planter available, we were anxious to try it out.

“We'll compare costs and yields for the twin-row beans against conventional and drilled beans, and then we may move into it in a bigger way next year.”

Harry Roland is another grower who used the planter on 30 acres of his 250 acres of corn. For comparison purposes, he planted 16 rows with conventional spacing in the same field as the twin-row. He'll also compare the twin-row, which will be furrow-irrigated, to dryland corn.

“Our usual seeding rate is 33,000 plants per acre,” he says. “With the twin-row planter, we dropped to 28,000, based on research I'd seen out of Missouri, where they consistently get better yields with lower rates.”

In the early 1970s, Roland says, he used a Burch peanut planter that offered more-precise planting than conventional planters available then. “We used it for planting soybeans, but it was nowhere near as accurate as the Monosem twin-row planter.”

Both Roland, who has 750 acres of soybeans in addition to his corn, and Prestidge “are very forward-thinking farmers, who are interested in research and new methods and technology,” Rose says. “We're looking forward to their after-harvest evaluations of how the twin-row crops stack up against their conventional crops.”

Farm bill signing marked with sadness

For all of the ebullience that followed the signing of the new farm bill, there was a touch of sadness as the two-year effort to bring meaningful assistance to farmers drew to a close.

Many farmers were dismayed by the criticism from the big daily newspapers, the European Union and even farm-state members of Congress. But they were also chagrined by the fact that the farm bill process took so long, spilling over into this year's planting season.

When the Senate finally passed the farm bill conference report, 64-35, the afternoon of May 8, more than one grower or ag industry member was heard to remark: “Too bad it came too late.”

Few were complaining about the bill. Most Southern, row crop producers never expected to get the kind of help the legislation promises to provide. Nor did they think Rep. Larry Combest, the conference chairman, and Rep. Charlie Stenholm, the House conferees' ranking member, would work their magic with the Grassley payment limits amendment.

Still, most growers know at least one farmer or several farmers who didn't plant a crop this year because they or their lenders finally despaired of seeing new legislation that would bring certainty to their situation.

“I think the bill is good for farmers,” said Cecil Williams, executive vice president of the Agricultural Council of Arkansas, who is retiring after working on more farm bills than he may care to remember. “The real problem is that we are losing farmers so fast. We're going to get to the point where there is nobody to work this ground.”

Some farmers weren't able to put together financing for 2002 prior to the signing of the bill, “and some farmers went out. If we had been faced with three more years of what we've faced, there would be hardly anybody left farming. We'd have the big corporations running agriculture.”

Farmers had to be cheered by the Bush administration's decision to come out fighting for legislation that it did not prefer. Three days after the signing ceremony, an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development told a group of trade and finance ministers from the European Union to clean up their own act before they criticized others.

“I would just urge the Europeans to stop their protectionist stand and look at their own policies, which are the problem,” Andrew Natsios was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying. “I think there's a little hypocrisy in arguing that our subsidies are the problem. If the Europeans would reform their subsidies, we'd certainly be willing to discuss the subject.”

Since then, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman has turned the criticism back on the source on several occasions, even writing a “letter to the editor” to farm newspapers, refuting some of the “inaccuracies.”

While they applaud such efforts, producers also know the farm bill battle may not be over; that the Sen. Grassleys and Lugars are trying to attach payment limit amendments to other bills or water down the legislation.

And that may be the saddest part of all: that those who represent such large farm states are still doing their best to hurt working farmers.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.