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Articles from 2006 In May

Food, then and now - a world apart

My sisters and I found some great old gems when we cleaned up the old farmhouse after my father died last year and my mother-in-law decided to move to town. Among them: boxes and boxes of old National Geographics, dating back sixty years.

The one I'm looking at now is dated March, 1942 with a whopping 52-page cover story called, "Revolution in Eating." Combining black and white and color photos, this story takes a very detailed look at nearly every facet of U.S. cuisine in war-time America.

In a nutshell, the story is about the vast processing and transportation industry that allowed oranges in California to be eaten in New York before rotting. "Your steaks average more than 900 miles of travel from cattle range to gas range," reports the article. Touting the Union Stock Yards of Chicago and the "machine food age," the story claims nutrition as the newest science. "The telephone, the automobile, even the movies - all got going before you heard of vitamins and minerals we now know the body needs," says one food expert in the article.

Fast forward

Today we take the processing and transport of food for granted. Nutrition is still important today, but there's a lot more going on in a consumer's mind as well. New food trends focus on convenience and health. According to Mintel, a food market researcher, almost 70% of adults in the U.S. are trying to eat healthier foods. That's according to a survey that examined the diet and exercise attitudes of around 30,000 American consumers. Mintel unveiled their latest food trends report at the Food Marketing Institute trade show in Chicago earlier this month.

Over two-thirds of those surveyed said calories don't count when it comes to eating foods they like, but almost half said nutritional value was the most important deciding factor in foods they consumed.

Food companies are jumping on the functional food bandwagon by adding healthy stuff to the food they make. Unilever's "Promise Buttery Spread" now comes omega-3 and vitamins B and E; General Mills' "Yoplait Nouriche Super Smoothie," contains 20 vitamins and minerals. Flower essences and chlorophyll have also been used in beverages in Australia and Brazil, while 'black' foods- such as black vinegar and vegetable drink and a black sesame paste- are emerging from China and Japan.

Closely linked to the nutritional qualities of products is the desire to use food as a path to looking and feeling beautiful. Products in this category include those with anti-aging and antioxidant ingredients, such as coenzyme-Q10.

Convenience foods

Ever wolfed down a burger one-handed while driving home in your pickup? Food companies are picking up on the trend. Soon you'll see convenience foods that include extreme portability and one-handed eating and drinking, based on the growing numbers of consumers who snack while driving. Coming soon: a Japanese single serve yogurt, which is opened and squeezed directly into the mouth, as well as single serve sachets of mayonnaise and ketchup.

You will also see more 'restaurant experience' food bought at the store by consumers who want the convenience and quality of eating out brought into their homes. Products that cater to this niche include Nestlé's microwavable panini sandwiches, as well as Lou's gourmet veal Osso-buco restaurant-style entrées.

Consumers are also increasingly looking for products that cater to specific needs. A company called Mediterranean Trade has a "Duo Dressing" - a salad dressing that can be adjusted to individual tastes.

Organics on the rise

You didn't see this trend in 1942: Organics will exceed $46 billion by 2010, an increase of around 63%, according to food market researcher Packaged Facts.

"Organics have clearly become a way of life for millions of health-conscious Americans, and the success of the big 3 - Whole Foods, Wild Oats, and Trader Joe's - has finally awakened mainstream American retail to the viability of this market," says the group's Don Montuori.

"This research delves into the inner-sanctum of the industry showing why it has become - and will continue to be - the hottest area in food retailing."

According to the report, the natural and organic category- currently valued at $28 billion - will continue to grow partly because of leading retailer Wal-Mart's decision to increase its organic offerings. The rapid growth in all major supermarkets' private label organic offerings, and highly anticipated expansion of the widely successful supermarket •lifestyle' stores, also assure the market's growth.

"In most cases, the growth of leading natural/organic brands continues to greatly outpace that of their respective categories, while organic products themselves are outselling •natural' ones because they are newer to mass channels and carry more clout with consumers because they are government-regulated," says Packaged Facts.

The lack of a formal definition of the term •natural' continues to result in consumer confusion. In February this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was petitioned to establish a clear definition of the term in order to avoid misleading claims.

Still a bargain

Food here was a bargain in 1942, and it still is today. The level of agricultural protectionism in Europe is higher than that in the United States. That is part of the reason why, as researchers at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation found, the prices of bread in France and Germany are 45% higher than in the United States, and the prices of meat in France and Germany are 56% and 87% higher than in the United States.

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Corn+Soybean Digest

Thiesse's Thoughts

Counter-Cyclical Payment Details

Counter-cyclical payments (CCP) for corn and soybeans are based on the national average price for that commodity from Sept. 1 in the year of harvest through August 31 the following year (crop marketing year). The crop marketing year for wheat and other small grains is June 1 in the year of harvest through May 31 the following year. The monthly average grain prices for each commodity are weighted for the volume sold each month to determine the final 12-month national average price for a commodity.

If the 12-month national average price for a commodity is lower than the target price for that commodity minus the Direct payment rate for that commodity, a CCP is earned. The maximum CCP is earned once the national average price for that commodity is at the national loan rate or lower for the commodity.

Timing Of CCP Payments
After Oct. 1 – Up to 35 percent of the projected CCP payment for a given crop marketing year. (Harvest Year) (Sept. 1-August 31 for corn and soybeans).

After February 1 – Up to an additional 35 percent of the projected CCP payment. (Year after harvest)

After October 1 – Final CCP payment based on final 12-month national average price. (Year after harvest) NOTE – It’s possible that repayment of the Advance Counter-Cyclical payments (October and February) could be required the following October, if the 12-month final national average price is too high to justify the advance CCP payments that were made during the year.

Expected CCPs For 2005 Corn And Soybeans
The University of Illinois has an excellent on-line resource to follow estimated counter-cyclical payments (CCPs) from month-to-month during the crop marketing year. The Counter-Cyclical Payment Tool is available at the following web site:

It appears likely that farm operators will get to retain all of the 28¢/bu. advance CCP, which they have already received on the 2005 corn crop, unless we have a very sharp rise in corn prices in the next 2-3 months. It is possible that there could be a small final CCP (up to 12¢/bu.) on 2005 corn in October, 2006 (after the 2005 marketing year ends on Sept. 30). There is almost zero chance of there being any final CCP on 2005 soybeans.

Editors note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at

Corn+Soybean Digest

The Road Warrior of Agriculture

The Most Important Factor Impacting Agriculture And Ag Lending

At the last ECI Agricultural Lending Technology conference, one of the attendees asked, “What is the most important factor impacting agriculture and ag lending?” Let’s examine this from the perspective of an agricultural producer’s financial statements. Concerning the balance sheet, the number one factor would be the value of land. Ag lenders need to do an earned net worth analysis. In recent years, what percent has come from appreciated vs. earned net worth? My best estimate would be at least 75 percent appreciated net worth vs. earned net worth, which has given both producers and lenders a false sense of security.

From the income statement, the most important factor has been rising input costs, in many cases at twice the rate of inflation, while margins are being compressed by global competition. Many producers truly don’t know their bottom line because accrual adjustments in investments, prepaid expenses and payables have been ignored in their analysis. This has not been a problem in recent years because losses have been capitalized through a refinancing strategy; however, times are changing.

Cash flow has been impacted by increases in living and management withdrawals combined with compressed margins. A statement of cash flows that examines operating, investing, financing and withdrawals is critical in these challenging economic times.

As credit scoring and quick processes to assess risk heat up, due diligence in analysis is imperative, particularly on large commercial agricultural operations.

The Road Warrior of Agriculture

My e-mail address

Editors' note: Dave Kohl, The Corn and Soybean Digest Trends Editor, is an ag economist specializing in business management and ag finance. He recently retired from Virginia Tech, but continues to conduct applied research and travel extensively in the U.S. and Canada, teaching ag and banking seminars and speaking to producer and agribusiness groups.

To see Dave Kohl's previous road warrior adventures type Dave Kohl in the Search blank at the top of the page.

This online exclusive is brought to you by The Corn and Soybean Digest

Corn+Soybean Digest

Market News

Farm Groups Nix Deeper Support Cuts

The Bush administration sought agreement from U.S. farm groups for a 70% cut in their most trade-distorting subsidies as way to save world trade talks, but was roundly rejected, industry sources told Reuters News Service on May 30.

However, discussions between the two sides on how the U.S. might offer trading partners more concessions on less trade-distorting "blue box" supports – such as spending caps on specific product payments – were better received, say the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity after talks with U.S. trade officials.

World Trade Organization (WTO) member nations are running out of time to reach agreement on the so-called Doha Development Round, launched in 2001 with the aim of lifting millions out of poverty by slashing global trade barriers.

Talks have stalled repeatedly on the subject of farm trade. WTO chief Pascal Lamy says a deal to cut tariffs and subsidies in farm and industrial goods must be reached by the end of June. Ministers are due to meet in Geneva starting June 26 for a final push.

The U.S. has offered to cut its "amber box" payments – its WTO allowance for most trade-distorting subsidies to its farmers – by 60% but is under pressure to offer more in order to get the European Union and developing countries to open their markets.

"They wanted to increase the domestic support offer ... to 70 ... and we told them no," says one industry source. "We told them we weren't willing to put more on the table when we hadn't gotten anything in return."

"The U.S. was talking about various ways of sweetening the pot on domestic support, trying to do things like product specific caps for blue box. I don't think people have been screaming about that," the second industry source says.

"The expectation among the commodity groups in the U.S. is that if the agreement comes together and the domestic support package is of the magnitude that the U.S. has proposed, there will be serious changes. These kind of details don't change things too much ... it is in effect window-dressing for Geneva."

Editors note: Richard Brock, The Corn and Soybean Digest's Marketing Editor, is president of Brock Associates, a farm market advisory firm, and publisher of The Brock Report.

To see more market perspectives, visit Brock's Web site at

Updated: Emerson, Berry seek wheat basis probe

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark., have asked the Federal Trade Commission to look into the widening of the wheat basis in their districts in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.

The representatives said they believe the difference between the prices being offered by local grain buyers versus soft red winter wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade has moved beyond the normal basis for the harvest period in the Mid-South.

“When prices go up at the Chicago Board of Trade, the price in our local markets doesn’t reflect that increase,” Emerson said in a statement issued by her office in Washington. “In our agricultural markets, that means dollars taken out of the pockets of our farmers.

“I guarantee that, should wheat prices fall, the full weight of a negative change will be passed on to the farmer. There is no reason the increase should not be passed through to the producer. The FTC can determine whether or not our agriculture community is being treated fairly and, if not, what steps are appropriate to correct the problem.”

From May 3 to May 22, the July contract for wheat increased 61 cents at the Chicago Board of Trade, compared to 15 cents at river terminals in the Eighth Congressional District.

“Every one of these pennies on the bushel counts,” Emerson noted. “Our farmers are paying record prices for energy and other inputs, and they are battling inefficiencies in the cash basis for their finished product in a perfect market.”

Elevator operators on the Mississippi River said several factors are playing into the weak basis, including higher freight costs and a lack of demand for soft red winter wheat at the prices it is being traded on the Chicago Board of Trade.

In a letter to FTC Chairman Deborah P. Majoras, Emerson and Berry said they were requesting the Federal Trade Commission investigate the possibility of anti-competitive wheat purchasing activities by grain elevators in the Mid-South.

“As we write, the current basis differential between the nearby wheat contract on the Chicago Board of Trade and a Mississippi River grain elevator is negative 70 cents. This is a significant change from historical basis patterns in the region.

According to the University of Missouri Extension Service, the 15-year average for the historical basis for nearby wheat contracts in the area for the first of June is a minus 6 cents; the 12-year average, minus 9 cents; 10-year average, minus 9 cents, seven-year average, minus 7 cents; five-year average, minus 3 cents; and the three-year average, plus 1 cent.

“Even at the height of last year’s river transportation disruption caused by Hurricane Katrina, the average basis was 65 cents below the nearby contract, before returning to a 1 cent above average in December,” they said.

“Today no transportation crisis exists, diesel prices for river barges are falling and a bushel of wheat can now be shipped from the Mid-South to the Gulf Coast for as low as 11 cents a bushel. An explanation for the dramatic widening of the basis is necessary, yet without the usual suspect of high transportation cost, an explanation escapes us.”

They note prices of inputs such as diesel and fertilizer have risen dramatically over the past year.

One elevator manager said the actual cost of barge freight for soft red winter wheat, as of May 31, was 31 cents per bushel. The difference in the cost of shipping a barge load, or 80,000 bushels of soft red winter wheat, from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans at the May 31 rate thus would be at least $16,000, he noted.

“The main reason the basis is so weak, however, is the lack of export demand to other countries,” said the operator, who asked not to be identified. “Chicago Board of Trade futures are high because of speculative buying by hedge funds and follow through from the Kansas City Board of Trade due to the poor hard red winter wheat crop on the High Plains. Foreign buyers don’t want to pay those higher prices for soft red winter wheat.

“I feel for producers in our area, but they have a very good crop to harvest and prices are above average. Things could be worse: they could have a terrible crop and low prices.”

“The CBOT price for soft red winter wheat has followed Kansas City hard red wheat up because of the short crop,” said a Mississippi-based elevator operator. “There are no supply/demand issues with soft red winter, so Gulf bids are extremely poor historically for it to move into the export market. No one wants soft red winter right now so we are at full carry July to September spread; that is, the market is paying to store until a later date.”

“Southern Missouri farmers are smart, hardworking and industrious,” said Emerson. “They also know when they are not getting a fair deal for their goods. An investigation is in order to ensure fairness in the cash basis.”


Producers to ag committee: Stay the course, extend ’02 farm bill

The message could not have been clearer: Farmers like the current farm program and urge Congress to either extend it or use it as the base for a new one.

Twelve members of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee seemed to get that message following a recent field hearing in San Angelo, Texas.

“I think the 2002 law works well,” said Colin Peterson, Minnesota, ranking minority member of the committee. “The testimony I’ve heard in Texas shows a lot of commonality with what I hear in Minnesota.”

In addition to maintaining the 2002 farm program, farmers and ranchers testifying before the committee also urged Congressmen to include a “permanent disaster title” in the next farm bill.

“We need that,” Peterson said. “We did not get it in 2002.”

Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, Virginia, said he agreed with Texas producers’ testimony on payment limits. He also assured them that the next farm bill “will be written by Congress, not the Secretary of Agriculture and not Geneva. We will not write a farm bill that will unilaterally disarm agriculture in trade talks,” he said.

Eleven farmers and ranchers, representing cotton, peanuts, wheat, corn, rice, grain sorghum, cattle, sheep, goats, dairy and sugar, urged the committee to maintain the safety net included in the 2002 law.

Al Spinks, a cotton farmer from Midland, Texas, said the 2002 farm bill “works well and provides a safety net, affordable crop insurance and counter cyclical payments, and the marketing loan protects us against low prices. Because of this program, we’ve been able to stay in business despite drought.”

Spinks urged the committee to include a permanent disaster provision in the next bill. He also said payment limits would “adversely affect” farmers. “We see an annual attempt to impose more payment limits on agriculture benefits and eligibility.”

Spinks and others urged Congress to develop an alternative energy program. “Alternative energy solutions should be pursued aggressively,” he said.

Jack Norman, president of the Texas Wheat Producers Association and a farmer from Howe, said the 2002 farm bill works well but argued that wheat does not fare quite as well as other commodities. “Wheat farmers can’t take full advantage of the commodity title,” he said. “The target price is too low. In a crop shortage, higher prices means low support payments. The program could be more flexible.”

Norman recommended raising the target price to $4.40 per bushel.

“Also, we need to improve risk management opportunities. Currently, a disaster in a wheat crop leaves a 35 percent gap in coverage.”

Rickey Bearden, immediate past president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., and a cotton producer, said the current farm program provides a good safety net but “does not guarantee us a profit.”

Bearden said USDA should reconsider how they define a farm, currently described as any operation with $1,000 in gross sales per year. That definition, he says, fuels farm program detractors who object to a small percentage of the nation’s farmers receiving 80 percent of program benefits.

“Only 34 percent of the country’s farms are commercially viable operations,” Bearden said. “But those farms produce 90 percent of the commodities that receive government support.”

He also urged the committee to maintain the marketing loan program, which has been singled out for elimination by the Bush administration. He said eliminating the marketing loan should be “out of the question.” All panel members listed the loan as a top priority in any new farm bill.

Dee Vaughan, representing Texas corn growers, produces corn, wheat, sorghum, cotton and soybeans near Dumas. He said the 2002 farm program “saved tax dollars.” He said the program allowed corn growers to update counter cyclical payments but left the loan deficiency payment yield too low.

Vaughan recommended that the committee address the increased cost of production in the next farm bill debate. He also suggested that conservation programs remain as cost share agreements.

Vaughan said USDA’s economic data reporting system needs revision, especially in the way the agency reports farm income. “They take farm income and off-farm income and lump them together into household income.” That procedure is misleading, he said.

Dale Artho, a grain sorghum producer from Wildorado, Texas, said the House Agriculture Committee is “our champion in Congress. We encourage you to do the right thing and stay the course,” he said.

He recommended tweaking the farm program to eliminate problems with inter-agency delays in administering disaster assistance. He said permission to allow cattle to graze on CRP land during a drought or following a wildfire “should not take 30 days.”

He said grain sorghum offers an ideal option for addressing the nation’s energy dependence.

He also championed U.S. agriculture as a foundation for national security.

“I don’t think taxpayers subsidize me,” he said. “I think I subsidize taxpayers. The country uses me as a defense contractor, but they don’t pay me.”

He said the claim that land prices are too high is “a bunch of bunk.” Land prices in rural Texas, he said, provide the basis for education, health and farmers’ retirement. “My retirement is not a 401(k); it’s my land,” he said.

Daniel Berglund, a rice farmer from Wharton, Texas, said decoupled payments hurt the Texas rice industry. “We’re basically tenant farmers,” he said. “Decoupling has resulted in huge losses in rice acreage.”

He explained that payments that do not require production allow landowners to take land out of rice production and still receive payments. They convert acreage to recreational or other use. Berglund said rice acreage has dwindled to 150,000 acres.

He said payment limits also create severe problems for rice farmers. “Many rice growers reach payment limits with 200 acres to 250 acres. That’s not a viable operation,” he said.

Berglund said rice is a unique crop, requiring different soils and production practices than other program crops. “And in rice areas, we have few other options.”

He’s concerned about WTO negotiations. “A number of countries likely will claim rice as a sensitive product,” he said. “That will limit export potential.

“Currently, we export 50 percent of our rice crop,” Berglund said. “Access to foreign markets is vital and we need additional export markets.”

James Overstreet grows peanuts and vegetables in Frio County.

“The current program works fairly well,” Overstreet said. “It could do a lot worse and that’s what I’m concerned about.”

He said changes in the peanut program have worked well, for the most part, but argued that the national posted price for peanuts is shrouded in mystery and undermines peanut exports. He explained that the peanut program stipulates that the Secretary of Agriculture will “set the national posted price at a rate that would ‘allow peanuts produced in the United States to be marketed freely and competitively, both domestically and internationally.’”

Overstreet said only a portion of that stipulation is being implemented. “We are freely and competitively competing in the domestic market, but because of USDA’s price calculations, we have lost 54 percent of our export sales.”

He said a more transparent method of administering the national posted price would allow the industry to “improve decision-making for planning purposes. We need an approach that is easily understood and of use to the peanut industry.”

Overstreet also urged the committee to correct “an unfortunate omission in the 2002 bill,” which allowed government payment of storage and handling costs to expire effective Aug. 1, 2007.”

He supports an extension of authorization for handling and storage cost payments and said those costs should be part of any future farm bill.


Health officials: Take caution in wake of tularemia case

Jackrabbits and cottontail rabbits could present a health problem in the Texas Panhandle this summer. A case of tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, has been found in Potter County.

State and local health officials confirmed a positive tularemia test in a jackrabbit found in an uninhabited area on Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport property.

An unusual number of deaths in the jackrabbit population prompted health officials to test for tularemia, a bacterial infection in rodents and rabbits that can be transmitted to humans, according to Amarillo Bi-City-County Health District officials.

Rick Gilliland, Texas Cooperative Extension-Wildlife Services district supervisor, found the suspected animal at the airport after a number of rabbits were reported dead. This initial tularemia die-off seemed limited to few hundred yards, but signs indicate it is spreading a little bit, he said.

“It’s very probable it will spread,” Gilliland said. “The most important thing now is damage management. Do not go close to sick or dead rabbits. The fleas and ticks in the region are potentially infected. Discourage rabbits in your yard.”

Tularemia occurred earlier in the year in the Presidio and Fort Davis area, spreading through about half of the county before it died off, he said.

The rabbit population has exploded during the past two years following prior years of abundance of spring and summer rainfall, Gilliland said.

Disease can sometimes be a natural part of the cycle and it will likely play a role in the decline of numbers in the next couple of years.

While currently no human cases of the disease have been reported in this region, tularemia is a potentially serious illness that occurs naturally in the Panhandle, health district officials said.

Tularemia can spread by handling infected carcasses, being bitten by infected deer flies, horse flies, ticks or fleas, eating contaminated food, or breathing in the bacteria, health officials said.

Symptoms, usually appearing three to five days after exposure, include: sudden fever, headaches, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough, progressive weakness, ulcers on the skin or in the mouth and swollen or painful lymph glands.

The Texas Department of State Health Services made the following recommendations:

·Report large die-offs of rabbits, rodents or other animals to public health agencies.

·Do not let pets roam loose.

·Do not handle unknown or wild animals, alive or dead, specifically rabbits.

·Use insect repellant when outdoors to prevent flea and tick bites.

·Use an effective flea and tick control product on pets.

·Treat lawns and property to prevent fleas and ticks.

·Avoid resting or camping near rodent or rabbit burrows.

·Eliminate sources of food and shelter for rodents around homes, work and recreational areas.

Jim Alexander, regional Health Services zoonosis control veterinarian in Canyon, said tularemia can be pretty explosive.

“If the rabbits from the infected population communicate with other populations, it could spread quite a ways,” Alexander said. “Also, coyotes can carry ticks and move it into another area.”

While the disease can spread, he said the only modern cases he knew of in the Panhandle were near Canadian in 2002 and in Donley County in 2005.

In both situations, the disease died out fairly quickly without spreading too far. Alexander said he does not know of any human cases occurring in this region.

Tularemia was a reportable disease in humans until 1992, when it was taken off the list, he said. However, it was put back on the list of reportable diseases in 2002 due to bio-terrorism concerns. Since that time, seven human cases have been reported in Dallas, Hildalgo and Nueces counties.

In the animal population, more than 250 species of wild and domestic mammals, birds and fish are susceptible. However, in this region, the most sensitive are rabbits, prairie dogs and sheep, and they will generally die from it, Alexander said. While not highly susceptible, cats can get it and are more susceptible than dogs. Horses and cattle are fairly resistant.

“Our best advice now is to avoid contact with wild rabbits and rodents and utilize a good flea and tick repellent for humans and pets,” he said.

Ken Cearley, Extension wildlife specialist, said the bacterium can persist on skins or hides for more than a month and on carcasses for up to four months, so any dead animal suspected of carrying the disease should be handled with gloves. Rabbits are a non-game animal hunted any time of the year in Texas,

Cearley said. Any rabbits taken from the area should be handled with rubber gloves. Rabbits taken for meat should be thoroughly cooked before eating. Avoid cross-contamination of foods by thoroughly disinfecting any utensils involved in processing rabbits before allowing them to contact other food items.

“In my opinion, you would be better off not eating or handling rabbits that come from anywhere near the infected area,” he said. Hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, farmers, ranchers and others working outside in areas inhabited by rabbits and rodents are at a greater risk than other people, Cearley said. Wear adequate clothing and insect repellent to avoid insect bites.

For more information, visit the Center for Disease Control Web site at: .

Virginia grower credits rotation, conservation-tillage for big cotton yields

Growing three-bale per acre cotton is a chore anywhere, but to do it as far north as cotton is grown in the U.S. takes some special planning and a little luck from time to time.

Jon Black, who grows 2,300 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton near Roxbury, Va, averaged 1,320 pounds per acre on one 400 acre farm, with some fields on that farm topping three bales per acre.

He grows 700 acres of cotton, 300 acres of corn, 1,000 acres of wheat and wheat/soybean double-crop. “We plant soybeans into wheat straw no-till, harvest that in the fall and it is left as our no-till mulch. That’s the reason we have 1,000 acres of wheat and soybeans to correlate with the 300 and 700 acres of corn and cotton,” he says.

Over 95 percent is in no-till, with better than 90 percent in continuous no-till systems for more than 10 years. Unless he has new ground or some unusual soil or weather conditions, the Virginia grower says everything is no-till.

Black was born into farming. His father, John Black, grew up in central Virginia and farmed for many years in the area. Now semi-retired, John, helps his sons Jon and Keith work the farm. With double-cropping systems on nearly half their land, the three Virginia farmers plant and harvest about 3,000 acres of crops per year.

A firm believer in conservation and in need of any labor-reducing farm practices, Black began no-till farming in the mid 1970s. “We started with soybeans behind wheat and corn, but we always worked the wheat land out. In the late 1980s, we went all the way with no-till on full-season soybeans and corn,” he recalls. By the mid-1990s they began experimenting with no-till wheat and subsequently went to no-till systems on virtually all their land.

“When we first started growing cotton, we used a subsoiler to break the hardpan, then used a strip-till rig to prepare the land,” Black says. “For the first several years we grew cotton, we had a ripper and pulled a culti-packer behind it — that was the only tillage work we did on our cotton land for years. When we started growing cotton, we got into no-till planting wheat, which really opened up some options for no-till,” the Virginia grower explains.

In central Virginia, Black says by the end of September cotton has grown all it’s going to grow because the heat units just aren’t there on into October. He defoliates his cotton late September, picks the cotton and cuts the stalks. He then plants no-till wheat. In June, he cuts wheat, then plants no-till soybeans into the wheat stubble.

In this rotation, the past two years he has averaged more than 140 bushels of corn per acre. Last year, on 1,000 acres of wheat, he averaged 80 bushels of wheat per acre. Full-season soybeans topped 40 bushels per acre, though total soybean yields were lower because of late season drought on his double-crop beans. “Overall, our 700 acres of cotton was probably our best crop last year,” Black says. Roundup Ready cotton varieties have performed well on their farm. “We have tried Liberty Link varieties and really like the idea of having some flexibility, but we haven’t been able to get the yields we need from these varieties,” the Virginia growers points out.

An advantage to growing cotton in central Virginia, according to Black, is reduced insect pressure. “We could probably do without Bollgard cotton, but it comes in the better varieties, so we plant it because of that,” he says. “On non-Bollgard containing varieties we spray twice a year for bollworms, once in the first week of August and come back a week later with a second spray. On Bollgard cotton, we only spray one time,” the Virginia grower explains.

A few years back, Black started using a row-sweep planter that has made no-till cotton much more efficient. The row-sweep moves the residual crop trash and mulch out of the way and insures that seed and soil have good contact. Before that, he says, he had trouble getting seed through the inch or so of mulch on no-till land.

“The row sweeps do a good job of brushing the trash out, and you can even set them up deeper to kick a little dirt out. “We plant all our cotton with the row sweeps and usually with other crops,” he says.

Thrips, he contends, is one of the most difficult problems to deal with on cotton in central Virginia. He uses five pounds per acre of Temik at planting, but every year has to come back when cotton is in the early leaf stage with Orthene. Thrips pressure in northern Virginia, he stresses is too high for Temik alone to control the problem.

Early in the cotton cycle, wheat is drying down rapidly, which Black believes produces an ideal environment for thrips to develop. When thrips come out of the wheat stubble, especially on early cotton, both Temik and Orthene are needed to control the problem, Black says.

“If you don’t use Temik, you know it,” Black says. “I like the lock and load systems that prevent handling of bags,” he adds. The Virginia farmer will be working with Virginia Tech Cotton Specialist Joel Faircloth to test Avicta Complete Pak, a new thrips and nematode management pesticide. “We picked DeltaPine 434 seed, which is treated with the new material. We are excited to see how it works, because we like to rotate technology whenever we can,” Black says.

Roundup Ready cotton, and the subsequent use of glyphosate herbicides, plus the no-till planting system he uses, has greatly reduced weed pressure. Cocklebur was a big problem before Roundup systems were available. Now, he sometimes spikes Roundup with Staple to control morningglory and other weeds and grasses on which glyphosate provides weak control.

Glyphosate use has clearly made no-till farming easier. For farmers considering no-till farming systems, Black says you have to have ground smooth and level before you go into no-till. When you go no-till, that will be your seedbed for many years, so take the time to get it right.

After three or four years in no-till, it will be hard to mess it up. The ground will firm up, and you will be able to get into a field with tractors and combines and hardly leave a track, Black says. In fields under continuous no-till, you can almost run through water to harvest soybeans and barely leave a track.

“It’s good to plant into a dead field — it’s important to kill the cover crop at least three weeks ahead of time. We use Roundup most of the time, and sometimes paraquat and a combination of Roundup and 2,4-D,” he says.

Though some contend no-till systems greatly reduce fertilizer use, the Virginia farmer says that has more to do with the soil and the crop, and on his farm, nitrogen use has not been greatly reduced since going to no-till systems. “On our best cotton land, for instance, we put down about 55 pounds per acre of nitrogen, which is probably a little less than on conventional-tillage. If we use any more N our cotton plants get rank and cause problems at harvest time,” Black contends.

In cotton, he uses a 10-20-3 or 13-20-3 at 10-12 gallons per acre, applied at planting for a starter fertilizer. Then he broadcast potash and adds additional nitrogen as needed.

Overall, no-till is a lot cheaper than conventional-tillage, the Virginia grower stresses. Time is a critical issue with only three people to work the farm, he says. “We can get 2-3 inches of rain and be back in the field in a couple of days,” he says. “Since we’ve been going no-till, we haven’t gotten our cotton picker stuck in a field — that makes you appreciate no-till,” Black jokes.

Black plants cotton between April 20 and May 5, giving him plenty of time to produce a mature cotton crop and get it picked in September and early October. Black plants in 30-inch rows, which allows him to use corn equipment in cotton.

In 10 years of cotton, only a couple of times weather has caused significant yield reductions. “The first year we grew cotton in 1995, we had a terrible crop, and it was a really dry year. Now that we have grown cotton a few years, I think we will be better able to manage the drought,” the Virginia grower contends. “If we can grow cotton no-till this far north in Virginia, farmers in other parts of the country should be able to grow most any crop,” he adds.

There may be one or two growers as far north as Black farms cotton, but he is about as far north as cotton grows. Despite his geographical limitations, the Virginia grower contends growing good crops is more a function of what you do than where you are.


Column: Portman says Doha Round talks still have a chance

U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman says he still believes the WTO can successfully complete the Doha Development Round, but only if its members “work together to get that done.”

Portman was in Geneva, Switzerland, with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and Deputy USTR Susan Schwab for what might be Portman’s last trip as the chief U.S. trade negotiator. (Portman has been nominated to become director of the Office of Management and Budget.)

But he didn’t sound like a lame duck, joking with reporters during a teleconference that he and Schwab, who has been nominated to replace him, were doubling up on the other trade ministers at the WTO.

“This is a crucial time,” he said. “I think it was very important that we were here this week, given the missed deadline on April 30. We came to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to do everything in our power to keep these talks on track to be sure that we end up with a successful conclusion.”

He took a couple of swipes at the European Union, which most say has become the biggest stumbling block to a new trade agreement (if you discount the Congress, according to others.)

Portman said he’s optimistic about the Doha Round because other trade ministers have begun to get on the U.S. bandwagon for increased market access in the EU, Japan and other high-tariff countries. “I was struck by those who have told me their primary concern is market access, including the Africa group and others who believe market openings create economic opportunity.”

He reminded reporters that seven months ago the United States tried to revive the Doha talks by offering to reduce its farm subsidies by 60 percent. “Members have mentioned this week that it was great to see the new energy and enthusiasm after that October presentation.

“But, frankly, that energy has dissipated as matching offers have not come forward, particularly in market access. Some have said the U.S. proposal isn’t realistic, that we’re asking for too much. I don’t think that is true.”

Portman said most observers expected the United States to offer to reduce its “amber box” payments by 50 percent to 55 percent. “But, after careful consultation with Congress, the White House and constituent groups such as commodity organizations, we did 60 percent. That’s substantial, and it takes away not just checks to farmers, but our ability to continue with the same farm programs.

“It requires us to reform our farm programs, and I can say this without fear of being hit by my colleague to my right (Johanns) because he’s said the same thing in public testimony in the U.S. Congress.”

Johanns agreed farm program “reforms” would be required, “but in return we will gain greater market access and our farmers and ranchers will have the ability to compete on a worldwide basis.”

Maybe so. But more farm groups are wondering if the gains will be worth the price.