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Articles from 2004 In May

Brand-driven Pima cotton marketing possible

Supima brand-driven demand and government support to keep U.S. Extra Long Staple (ELS) cotton competitive in the world market add up to a bright marketing future for American Pima cotton for at least the next two to three years.

Jeff Elder, vice president, cotton marketing, for J.G. Boswell Co. told the Pima Production Summit recently that two-thirds of U.S. Pima cotton is sold to mills in five countries, and they are price buyers.

However, when customers of those mills are marketing Supima branded products licensed by Supima, they must buy U.S. Pima cotton. That is keeping American Pima in the world ELS ball game.

That brand-driven demand is so strong U.S. Pima cotton marketers will likely run out of Pima cotton after July because of a short 2003 crop and that strong demand. That, predicts Elder, will bolster prices for what is shaping up to be a big 2004 San Joaquin Valley crop. There will be little cotton to sell in early fall before this crop is ready to ship in November and December.

Elder gave the market outlook report at this year’s 6th Pima Production Summit sponsored by Western Farm Press, University of California, California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association and Supima at the Visalia Convention Center. About 150 attended.

This season’s SJV planting weather was the best ever since Pima was introduced into the valley in the mid-1980s. It has been called the best valley spring in 50 years for planting cotton.

It was no surprise, then, when Elder said USDA’s initial 200,000-acre March planting estimate for California was clearly inaccurate. He says it is at least 225,000 acres and could be as much as 250,000. Weather is the biggest determining factor in the Pima acreage because it is a longer-season cotton that generally does not yield well if planted after mid to late April. California experienced a rare March "heat wave" and that got a lot of cotton, both Acala and Pima, planted early and in a hurry.

Planting estimate

The total USDA estimated acres planted to Pima for the 2004/05 in the four Pima-producing states is 226,600 acres, according to USDA’s March estimate. That compares to 179,100 acres last season.

California grew only about 150,000 acres last year.

Texas is the second largest Pima producer with 16,000 acres this year, down from 20,000 last year. New Mexico’s acreage has jumped from 6,100 to 8,000 this season and Arizona’s Pima acreage continues to fade, down to 2,600 from 3,000 the year before.

Elder noted that Texas’ average Pima yield has jumped to more than 1,000 pounds over the past three seasons, and he expects Texas and New Mexico to continue to be players in the Pima market.

Elder said the brand-driven strong demand for Pima is because the Supima label can be found on a wide array of Pima products from coarse eight-count yarn rugs to luxurious 120-count yarn shirts. Supima has licensed mills and manufacturers worldwide to use the Supima or USA Pima brand. If those brands are used on the finished product, it must be made of 100 percent American Pima cotton.

"Certainly Step 2 has helped," said Elder, but "demand is there" for Pima cotton even though the 2003 crop is 20-cents per pound higher than the 2002 crop, he added.

That demand should keep stocks to ratio low for the next two to three seasons and therefore bring good prices to growers.

However, Elder warned that Pima prices above $1.20 per pound take the profitability out of Pima products for mills. At between that and $1 Pima is profitable for growers and mills.

Chasing market

The Pima cotton market has gone off shore just like the upland business with the collapse of the domestic textile industry, but Elder promised the industry is chasing it wherever it goes.

Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, China and Indonesia now consume two-thirds of America’s Pima cotton production. Mills in these countries are price shoppers, said Elder, but when a customer is selling a branded product whether it be Supima or Egyptian cottons, those mills must buy that cotton at generally higher prices.

While Elder is optimistic demand will keep prices up, he warned that Egypt, China as well as the U.S. — the world’s three largest ELS producers — are looking at significantly larger crops this season and that could have an impact on price. All three had sharply reduced crops last season, "Nevertheless, I think demand is there to get rid of ELS cotton," he added.

COMMENTARY: Key Senate elections shaping up for 2004

WASHINGTON - Both political parties are gearing up for the November election, with the White House and U.S. Senate considered to be the major battlegrounds. Key Senate races this year include: Alaska -- Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R); Colorado -- open seat; Florida -- open seat; Illinois -- open seat; Louisiana -- open seat; North Carolina -- open seat; Oklahoma -- open seat; Pennsylvania -- Sen. Arlan Spector (R); South Carolina -- open seat; and South Dakota -- Sen. Tom Daschle (D).

But with Congress essentially shackled by a 50-50 party split, the contest for the White House is the most anticipated prize in November, says Chandler Keys, vice president of government affairs and the chief lobbyist for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association in Washington, D.C.

"Power always travels to where it meets the least resistance. With control of Congress virtually split, which party wins the White House will really be important this year," he tells BEEF magazine.

Keys says the Bush Administration has been "very positive" toward the cattle and beef industry.

"We have had a lot of contact with the Bush White House, and we share a lot of similar philosophies about markets, demand and the global marketplace. We've gotten along well with them in collaborating to make sure the BSE incident was handled in a way that wasn't hysterical but science and risk based," Keys says.

Such collaboration also paid dividends in food safety, he adds, where the industry recorded huge progress toward reducing the incidence of E. coli 0157:H7 and other pathogens.

"We have continued to work together in implementing and fine tuning programs like the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HAACP) program," Keys says. "We've cooperated to ensure the program is effective at addressing the critical food safety control points and not used for political control points."

Keys chalks up other significant progress under the Bush Administration in federal lands and private lands. And, with the help of committee chairmen assignments in Congress, Keys says NCBA was successful in garnering a two-year delay in implementation of the country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) law.

"If we hadn't achieved that delay until September 2006, the industry would have to be preparing for that right now, on top of everything else," he says.

Keys sums up the political situation this way: "At the end of the day, what the industry wants is strong beef demand, a cooperative government, and profitability in the industry. That's what we have now but it takes diligence and fortitude to maintain that."

A total of eight senators and 29 congressmen, who are either retiring or running for another office, leave a total of 37 seats up for grabs in 2004. But, Keys says one of the most-watched races will be Daschle's reelection race in South Dakota where the senate minority leader is locked in a tough race against former U.S. Rep. John Thune, a Republican.

"Daschle is a very powerful figure on the political scene, and he has a more populist view of American agriculture. He's a big proponent of COOL and has come out in favor of 100 percent testing of cattle for BSE. It's likely that if John Kerry is elected president that Daschle would be a key advisor on agricultural matters to him," Keys says.

Joe Roybal is editor ofBEEF magazine, a sister publication to Delta Farm Press.


Veneman says farm sales could reach record in 2004

WASHINGTON – USDA is forecasting record farm products export sales of $61.5 billion for fiscal 2004, surpassing the previous record of $60 billion set in 1996. The strong sales reflect higher prices and expanding demand in major growth markets, despite some markets being closed to beef and poultry products.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman made the announcement during a teleconference on the farm economy and export forecast.

“Rising exports, good domestic demand and relatively scarce crop supplies all around the world have resulted in farm prices getting steadily stronger,” Veneman said. “In fact, the index of prices received by farmers for all farm products reached a record high in March of this year and then set another record in April.

“It is the highest for any month since we started keeping records in 1910.”

USDA expects total sales of farm products to also be a record at $215 billion. Net cash farm income was a record $63 billion in 2003, which was $2 billion above the previous record. “Net cash income will be strong again this year, perhaps not quite another record but above the 10-year average,” Veneman said.

In addition, farmer’s equity reached a record $1.16 trillion last year “putting agriculture in, arguably, the best financial health ever. The value of farm assets has grown steadily, reflecting continued growth in land prices in every region of the country.

“At the same time, farmers are doing a good job of managing debt, which is growing more slowly than asset values, resulting in a very solid balance sheet,” the Secretary said.

Veneman said she couldn’t comment specifically on the WTO ruling on Brazil’s complaint about U.S. cotton subsidies, since the final ruling will not be released until June 18. Press reports of a preliminary ruling indicate it was not friendly to U.S. cotton interests.

“But I think it’s important to remember that the United States in the summer of 2002, after we had a successful launch of the Doha Round in 2001, put a very aggressive proposal on the table to say that if other countries would do the same, we would accept additional disciplines on our own subsidies,” she said.

“We have been aggressive about this. Our agriculture community has supported that position, that if the world takes these steps then the United States will follow suit.

“A key to us in these negotiations of course is market access. Average tariff for U.S. food and agriculture, for products coming into the United States, is about 12 percent; worldwide it’s about 62 percent.

“So it’s very important to us that we get tariffs brought down, that through these negotiations we get increased market access for our farmers and ranchers.”

Veneman said that remarkable increases in sales to China, “result directly from the increased prosperity that comes from its opening the economy and from the market access that we negotiated as a condition of the WTO accession in 2001.

“China has quickly become our fifth largest market with sales last year reaching $3.5 billion. Our sales this year are forecast to jump to $5.9 billion, more than triple the amount in 2001 when China joined the WTO. And its long-term prospects appear very bright with the possibility that it will become the world’s top agricultural growth market over the next decade.”

China is now the No. 1 market for U.S. soybeans and cotton, “and it is now our sixth largest wheat market. Our analysts continue to speculate that corn purchases could be in the offing at some point in the future as well.”

USDA chief economist Keith Collins added that recent weakness in demand from China is from the country trying to assert control on strong economic growth.

“China’s economy has been growing very strong – last year it was 9.1 percent. The Chinese government is concerned that some sectors have had some over-investment, and it’s going to take awhile for that excess capacity to be absorbed by the overall economic growth. So they’ve implemented some limitations on loan volume for banks.

“They are shooting for an economic growth-rate somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 to 8 percent,” Collins said. “Even at those rates, that’s huge by world standards. And we would expect that even if they are able to achieve some slowing of their economy it’s still going to be a booming economy, and they’re going to be looking increasingly toward the United States.

“Certainly in any one year they could have a big crop, good weather, whatever, which might cause them to pull back some on imports of a particular commodity. But I think the trend is up, and I don’t think the economic growth slow-down will impede that long-term growth.”

Veneman added that agricultural export sales to NAFTA countries, “has been far faster than the growth in sales to the rest of our trading partners. In the ten years of NAFTA our sales to all markets rose $250 million a year on average. At the same time, our sales to NAFTA rose $800 million a year.”

The secretary said that seven bilateral and regional agreements with Chili, Singapore, Jordan, the CAFTA countries of Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, along with the Dominican Republic, Morocco and Australia “bring to our producers new market access to 119 million consumers who have an annual income of $820 billion.

“Our trade with these countries now is valued at $2.7 billion. We expect that amount to expand by well over 50 percent when these agreements become fully implemented.”


E-mail speeding consultant's work

There are no short-cuts, no tricks to scouting fields and consulting. You've got to get your boots dirty and work up a sweat.

“There's nothing fancy or glamorous about field work,” says Johnny Wheetley. “The only way to know a crop and understand it is to get out in it. Any consultant worth his salt is working client fields as hard as or harder than he would his own. Farms have gotten so large that producers don't have as much time to walk their fields. They've got any number of fires to put out without having to scout. In essence, consultants are paid to pick up the slack.”

Consultants are also paid to impart information and recommendations. And while there may be no short-cuts in collecting field data, Wheetley and his wife, Fredese, have found a quicker way to get data and recommendations to their producer clients: a lap-top computer and e-mail account.

The Wheetleys work some 8,500 acres in Arkansas' north-central Poinsett County. “Most fields are around the Weiner-Waldenburg-Cherry Valley area. We have a little wheat and, later in the season, we'll have a few soybeans too. But we're pretty much solid rice,” says Johnny.

The area topsoil is very shallow and overall fertility is low. “It's rice ground — and that's what's planted. Producers here grow all the rice they can.”

As in other rice-growing areas of the state, water is a concern. Wheetley admits he's seen a steady drop in the water table here as well.

“I don't know if it's drying up as fast as was once claimed: in the mid-1980s we were told water would run out in 15 years. Well, it's been over 15 years, and we're still cooking. That doesn't mean there aren't problems, though. Wells go out regularly, and it'll happen again this year. When we start pumping, I'm sure we'll find a well or two that was good last year but is pumping sand now.”

The job

Wheetley worked Poinsett County as an Extension agent back in the mid-1980s. In 1988, he decided to take the consulting plunge after several farmers offered him a job to work their land. “That put a bug in my ear and I decided to give it a shot,” he says.

He learned a valuable lesson his first year out: cotton and rice acres don't mix well. “That first year, some of my rice farmers killed my cotton acres,” says Wheetley with a laugh. “It wasn't funny then, of course, but I learned quickly that it was impossible to work both crops. Being in the middle of drift fights is no fun at all. When you've got two paying clients and one of them killed the other's crop, you'll lose no matter what. Anyway, after that first year I knew I had to choose a crop.”

In Poinsett County, as in others, Crowley's Ridge tends to be the dividing line. East of the ridge is cotton, west is rice and soybeans. Wheetley decided to stay on the west side.

Wheetley is working about half the acres he used to. “My younger cousin worked with me for about nine years. Four years ago, he took another job, and I had to cut back on the acres I work.”

After his cousin left, “(Johnny) had to find a better way,” says Fredese. “He struggled for a couple of years, trying to refine a working system and has finally come up with something that works. You know, we were kind of forced into this, and it's turned out that necessity really pushed us into something better.”

Until Fredese (who has a computer and technology degree) began helping him, Johnny would scout fields and hand-write notes for each. That was time-consuming and inefficient.

“I'm telling you, one of the main problems I used to face was getting information to farmers in an easy-to-use format,” says Johnny. “You wouldn't think that would be such a big deal, but farmers are hard to catch. I used to carry three phones and a beeper and still couldn't get through to clients. Phones have gotten better, but they aren't the whole answer.”

Once Fredese began working alongside him this season, things became easier. While walking through fields, he'll use a microcassette recorder to dictate notes. When he's through with that field, he brings the tape to Fredese, pops another in the recorder and walks to another field.

“I take the tape he's just given me,” says Fredese, “transcribe his comments into the laptop and print it off. We print a hard copy for the farmer and one for us. Then, I e-mail a copy to the farmer from the truck. Within half an hour of checking, the farmer can see an e-mail describing conditions in his field. This makes it a lot easier for everyone. Johnny doesn't have to worry about writing notes and I can take care of the computer-related side of the business.”

With the exception of talking into a recorder instead of taking notes, Johnny does the same thing he's always done out in the field. “You know, ‘The rice is at so many leaves, the weeds are this type and this heavy, and all the rest. This is my recommendation.’ But it gets to the farmer so much faster. We've gotten great feedback on this. The farmers seem to really like it.”

Most farmers are now hooked up to the Internet. It was slow going for the first few weeks, “but everyone is figuring out this is a technology that can streamline business,” says Johnny. “Some farmers have told me they like the constant updates. You know, this doesn't do away with the phone conversations and face-to-face discussions — we still need that. But what we're doing really enhances communication between us. It's invaluable when a farmer can look over my e-mailed notes while we're on the phone talking about a specific field.”

Working together

“We have fun and keep a sense of humor,” says Fredese. “We've found that we're a team, and it has worked out really well. While in the field, you have to bear down and leave the family stuff behind. It's a business, so it's very important to understand that from the outset.

“Throughout the day, there are lots of things to laugh and talk about. It's wonderful to spend time with him. It's just so rewarding to work together and do a good job.”

Johnny is more succinct, but no less enthusiastic: “We both have our niches and shore up each other's weaknesses. She's really a great partner.”

While Johnny walks fields, Fredese works the computer in the truck. “I'm an avid researcher. I try and find ways to help (Johnny) do his job better. One of the first things I did was to find the best weather sites available and save them to the desktop. That way, he can check four or five radars to see what forecasts are.”

In the past, if a storm was brewing on the horizon, Johnny would run to the nearest co-op to check the radar. Now, he says, “We just pop the (Web site) radars up and, in two minutes, can determine if a field is being rained on and how long that rain should last. That has saved untold time, and we've only been doing this for a couple of months.”

Another thing the two make constant use of is Web sites containing data on chemical labels. “That saves all kinds of time, too. I used to use a big book, flipping around trying to find stuff.”

The Wheetleys are now eyeing digital cameras. “That's something we'll be going to soon,” says Johnny. “Hopefully, I can just take photos and send them straight to the farmers. ‘You've got weevils — look at this picture!’”

Regardless, Johnny says his wife has been invaluable to him this season. “It takes both of us to do this and I don't take her for granted. I've got 17 years' worth of notebooks at home. I've got bundles and bundles of them. Now, because of her, it's all on a little plastic disk. Believe me, that's a welcome change.”


Feed prices squeeze catfish profits

Mississippi catfish producers saw profits last year after two years of losses, and are hoping feed prices in 2004 won't put their operations back into red ink.

Jim Steeby, Extension aquaculture specialist with the National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Belzoni, Miss., said feed prices have made it difficult to see a profit in the catfish industry.

“Last year, our average feed price was $230 a ton,” Steeby said. “This year's feed prices are going to be at least $50 a ton above that price.”

Feed, which is primarily made of soybean meal, accounts for half the cost of catfish production. According to Mississippi State University's Department of Agricultural Economics, producers can continue to make a profit if they get 75 cents a pound or more for their fish and feed doesn't rise above $280 a ton.

Soybean prices had been low in recent years, but last fall they began to rise. As of early May, feed cost about $300 a ton.

Terry Hanson, MSU agricultural economist, said the cost of production in Mississippi is typically between 60 and 70 cents a pound. “They've been losing money for about three years,” Hanson said of producers. Prices hit a recent low in January 2003 of 52.9 cents a pound, well below the cost of production. By early May, prices had rebounded to about 75 cents a pound, Hanson said.

“Farmers have been trying to stay alive by feeding less and stocking less. A few years of doing this created lower numbers in the ponds, so processors are having to bid up the numbers to get the fish they need,” Hanson said.

Since more than half the catfish are sold in restaurants, Hanson said the improved economy means more people are eating out, which also is helping prices.

“The industry will survive because it has a good product and there's a large quantity being sold, but prices need to go up more to enable producers to survive the short-term squeeze,” Hanson said. “It's going to be rough and some more folks will probably go out of business.”

The Delta aquaculture specialist said there was an oversupply of catfish in 2001 and 2002, but catfish acreage in Mississippi dropped from 113,000 acres in 2001 to 101,000 acres when tallied in February.

Acreage leaving catfish is going into timber, wetland programs or soybeans. Most of the lost acreage has been older ponds in need of repair, and Steeby said he doesn't expect the acreage leaving catfish production to return.

Cool spring temperatures mean spawning was on track at 3 percent to 4 percent under way by the first of May and should conclude by mid-July. Producers have not yet started to feed heavily, and the only concerns have been off-flavor problems lingering from winter.

Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.

LSU names associate vice chancellor

DAVID MORRISON has been promoted to associate vice chancellor of the LSU AgCenter and associate director of its Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station.

Morrison, who has 29 years of experience in the LSU AgCenter, was serving as an assistant vice chancellor before moving into the new position.

“Dr. Morrison has been extremely active in providing leadership at the regional and national levels,” said David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research. “He has administrative experience and an extensive background in research.”

A native of Mississippi, Morrison joined the faculty of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station in 1975 as a research associate at the Idlewild Research Station in Clinton, after completing his master's degree at Kansas State University. He received his bachelor's degree from Mississippi State University and his doctorate in 1980 in animal sciences at LSU.

Corn/soybeans: '04 prices uncertain

USDA's May forecast that the United States will produce record corn and soybean crops this year might at first glance be gloomy for prices. But according to an analyst with Strategic Trading Advisors, there's still way too much uncertainty to know where prices are headed in the long term.

USDA's forecasts for a 2.9 billion bushel soybean crop and a 10.4 billion bushel corn crop are based on the fact that much of the 2004 U.S. crop has been planted on time or earlier and assumes optimum growing conditions from here on out.

Six weeks ago, things did not look so rosy for producers, said Jody Lawrence, speaking at the Ag Market Network's May teleconference.

“We came off the driest April on record in Indiana and a good part of Illinois, to a May where there were almost perfectly timed rains, and outside of a cool snap, things have been nearly ideal to this point. There has been very little replanting despite all the rains we've gotten. A majority of the crop is going to benefit from being in the ground early.

“Most years, in early May, the crop is not in nearly this good a shape, and you're dealing with a long-term look that comes down to weather during pollination, depending on where you are.”

This early optimism is one reason USDA is projecting above-trend-line yields for both corn and soybeans. This includes an average 40-bushel yield for soybeans on 74 million acres.

But any kind of trouble could send prices higher because demand is very strong and stocks still tight for both crops.

“If you lose only 1 bushel per acre in soybeans, we're in no better shape (in carryover) than we are right now with old crop beans trading between $9.60 and $10.50,” Lawrence said. “I'm not convinced that we have seen the highs for the year. I don't think we are going to be able to walk through this entire year without a weather scare.”

While the possibility of a bumper crop definitely exists, don't “get caught up in a ‘sky is falling’ undertow of the funds selling,” Lawrence said. “You have to be patient and look at the big picture. There is intense pressure on agricultural producers to raise bumper crops every year to keep pace with demand.”

Lawrence noted that in 2003 “1.5 billion bushels were lost between China, the United States and South America. Did that start the golden age of $2.70 plus corn and $6.50 plus beans? I think you could certainly make the argument that for the next two years, corn, wheat and beans should be very well supported.”

Lawrence added that the most optimistic weather outlook needed for a bumper corn crop could pressure December corn to $2.60 to $2.70 later in the year. “But we could produce a record corn crop of 10.2 billion bushels, and corn will still have to ration demand. And I don't think anybody truly knows how much ethanol we're going to produce this year.

“Beans at best, if everything goes well, is a $6.60 to $6.80 item. If you put a loss in there, November beans could be right where July beans have been. You get any kind of problems in China this year, you could go well over $11.”

The Ag Market Network is a joint effort of the Extension Services, Mississippi Farm Bureau and Rosenthal-Collins in Memphis.


Tomato market situation, data source

Commercially grown tomatoes in Arkansas have been in the field since early to mid-April. Producers have staked and tied at least once and made at least one fungicide application. The season is progressing nicely. As the crop develops, we begin to monitor the current situation of the tomato market.

Tomatoes, like all fresh fruits and vegetables, are perishable and cannot be stored for long periods of time. This means that price is highly dependent on the current supply and demand. Supply and demand can change in a matter of days, thus making tomato prices quite volatile.

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service collects supply, demand and price information on fruits and vegetables in the United States. Most of their information on fruits and vegetables is available on its Web site at Much of this information is updated daily. The USDA collects more information on tomatoes than on any other fruit or vegetable.

Tomatoes consumed in the United States are produced in various parts of the world, but the major suppliers are Florida, California and Mexico. Shipments throughout April are displayed in the accompanying table.

Tomato producers in the Mid-South strive to harvest tomatoes after the early crops in Florida and parts of Mexico have been harvested and before the later crops in California and western Mexico get into full production. After July 4, tomatoes often become abundant with several states having some level of commercial production and home gardens meeting the tomato needs of many consumers.

Tomato prices at the time of this writing are very good. According to USDA's daily Tomato Fax Report (, farmers in Florida were receiving about $15 per 25-pound box for their mature green number one tomatoes in late April and early May. Farmers in Mexico were also receiving about $15 per box in early May for their vine ripe tomatoes in two layer flats. $7 per box is often considered a marginal price for field grown tomatoes in the Mid-South.

Once tomatoes leave the farm, many of them are shipped to a wholesale market somewhere in the United States. USDA collects daily price information from 15 wholesale markets (

In late April and early May, tomatoes from Florida and Mexico were selling in the upper $10s and lower $20s at the St. Louis, Chicago and Dallas wholesale markets. Tomato prices at the Dallas market on the first Wednesday in May from 2000 to 2004 are displayed in the accompanying graph.

While the demand for tomatoes is increasing over time, much of the volatility in tomato prices comes from changes in supply. A bumper crop or crop disaster in a major production region can change tomato prices quickly. According to USDA's weekly report on tomato shipments dated May 4, 2004 (, Florida had shipped almost 7.5 million more boxes of tomatoes as of May 1 than at that same time last year (a 19 percent increase). Mexico, on the other hand, had shipped over 3 million boxes fewer than one year ago at this time (an 11 percent decrease).

The USDA also reports on shipping point trends ( As of early May, shipments from central and south Florida were expected to increase slightly as the season progressed normally. Shipments from Mexico were expected to decrease as the season winds down.

2003 was an excellent year for tomato farmers in Arkansas. With shipments from the major production regions similar to those of last year, prices continue to remain very favorable. Things can change quickly in the vegetable business, so we will continue to follow the market. For more information on tomato markets or production, see your county agent.

Kelly Bryant, James Marshall, Rob Hogan and Scott Stiles are University of Arkansas Extension economists. Comments or questions? Call 870-460-1091 or e-mail

Tomato shipments by week for April 2004 (25,000-pound units)

Origin Mar 28-Apr 3 Apr 4-10 Apr 11-17 Apr 18-24 Apr 25-May1
Florida 1,639 1,785 1,894 1,575 1,647
Mexico 1,221 657 788 890 726
Other 2 1 1 0 0
Total 2,862 2,443 2683 2,465 2,373
(Source: USDA Weekly Shipments by Commodity: Tomatoes

One person's weed may be another's lunch entree

Memories are occasioned by the oddest things. A snatch of background music in a busy shopping mall may recall a years-ago special moment. A word or a phrase in conversation may resurrect a long-forgotten experience.

But pokeweed?

Going to and from the office each day, I pass a fallow field, and in the border, just off the roadway, are numerous large clumps of pokeweed, grown lush from all the recent rains. I see it elsewhere, sometimes in the edge of a yard where the mower or WeedEater haven't been, or around an old house place.

At this season, it's not an unattractive plant and, in fact, would look all right as background foliage in a flower border. But it grows rapidly and soon, when summer heat and humidity set in and the rains slack off, it becomes ungainly and raggedy and ugly, with stems turned reddish and crowned with a mass of evil-looking berries.

As well they are. The nomenclature notes that the entire plant contains a poisonous substance. Eating the plants/berries can result in purging, spasms, and sometimes convulsions, or even death due to paralysis of the respiratory organs.

Indians used the bright crimson berry juice for staining feathers, arrow shafts, and garments, and they and early settlers mixed the root in poultices and potions for skin diseases and rheumatism (whether any medical validity for this has ever been established, I haven't a clue).

Birds, apparently immune to the poison, eat the berries and thus spread seeds thither and yon. Animals, as best can be determined, don't eat any part of the plant.

And yet… people do. Some people. Poisonous though they may be at maturity, in the early spring, the young leaves are edible when cooked.

One of my childhood memories is of spring forays with my mother to look for “poke salad.” We'd go out into the fields adjoining our rural home, and she'd find the plants and gather “a mess” of the tender, young leaves, placing them in a cloth bag that I'd hold open. On the jaunt, to and fro, she'd point out wildflowers — bright yellow coreopsis, delicate blue phlox (sweet William), purple dogtooth violets, showy white oakleaf hydrangeas. Now and then, we'd stop to eat ripe “dewberries.”

Back at the house, she'd wash the poke leaves, mix them with turnip greens from the garden, and then cook the stuff in a cast iron pot, with chunks of “fatback” for seasoning (no cholesterol concerns in those days). After hours of simmering, she'd serve it, and its “potlikker,” with crusty cornbread made from corn she'd taken to the grist mill in town to be ground into meal. The bread was cooked in a well-seasoned black iron skillet that had been generously greased with lard.

I have no recollection of ever eating her greens-poke salad mix, but she relished the dish, and long after I was grown and gone and she was frail and old, a papery wisp of her younger self, she would still, in the spring, hanker for “a good mess of poke salad.”

To this day, I never see pokeweed that I do not remember her.

Mississippi soybeans: Planting early requires preparation

At mid-May, the Mississippi soybean crop was close to 90 percent planted. Progress has been well above average, but it all hinged on cooperative weather. Many areas west of us experienced weather extremes that hampered planting progress, but it is this type of weather that makes you realize the window of opportunity for early planting can be quite narrow.

We capitalized on earliness this year, but it required being prepared. If fields are dry enough in March/April to hold up a tractor, you have to take advantage of the opportunity. Any normal rain this time of year can take you out of the field for a week to 10 days, especially on clay soils.

Our approach to early planting needs to remain the same, just plant. I do not look at soil temperatures, but I do pay attention to drainage. It is very much like cutting hay, you have to start sometime, and the window can be very narrow early.

Several fields started blooming as early as the first week of May. These earliest blooms were on plantings that occurred mid- to late-March. Although this may be considered early, it is not a major cause for alarm. Larry Heatherly, USDA-ARS senior research agronomist at Stoneville, Miss., and others over the last few years have documented plants adding 40 to 70 percent growth after bloom. Plants that begin blooming at 8 inches are capable of achieving a final plant height of 20 to 30 inches — more than sufficient in narrow row plantings.

Determinate varieties are more of a concern, but we have experienced no height problems on plantings from late March to early April in over 15 years of testing.

In most years, plantings in late March to early April will not emerge until mid-April. That is not too early for Group 5s. Narrowing your row configuration can compensate for reduced height. If you feel that this goes totally against what you thought to be true, you may be correct. We did what we used to do (May and June plantings) because it was the best information we had at that time. Research has opened some new doors.

Another factor that we have not paid enough attention to is flat plantings. Soybeans planted on beds this year have grown off well. This is not as much due to drainage this year but temperatures. Beds warm faster and promote excellent early-season growth. If you told me I could utilize one input in soybean production, I would request a row every time. It is difficult to use narrow rows on beds, but given the advantage of beds, I expect to see an increase in wide beds and various other configurations. It is not essential for all acreage, but it can minimize many problems.

In recent years many have learned that it does not require a large plant to produce high yields. To achieve more height, a number of growers are planting Group 5s first, followed by Group 4s. This goes against spreading maturity, but they are achieving more plant growth.

Sometimes height is reduced by cool, wet conditions which causes stunting. Even if this occurs, a taller growing Group 5 has helped minimize the problem. However, we still need to plant our Group 4s first and finish with our full-season varieties.

In 1992, I saw several hundred acres of Hutcheson (Group 5) — planted on 30-inch rows and furrow irrigated — cut over 70 bushels per acre. Once they dried down, they averaged 14 inches in height. A tremendous yield from fairly short plants.

In the mid 1990s, Floyd Hancock and others conducted a planting date/row spacing study. Hutcheson was one of the varieties used in this test. If there is one universal complaint, it was that it was too short. In those tests Hutcheson yielded the highest when planted early (late March).

If you do a good job matching variety to row spacing, you will not lower yields by planting early. If you can irrigate, however, you can plant anytime in an April to early May window and still achieve high yields.

Alan Blaine is the Mississippi Extension soybean specialist. e-mail: