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Sunbelt growers planting much less cotton and fewer peanuts; grains score big gains

Cotton acreage has taken a significant hit throughout the Southeast, across the Mid-South, the Southwest, and the Far West.

Peanuts have lost considerable acreage in the lower Southeast but increase slightly in Texas.

Corn, grain sorghum, soybeans, and wheat, spurred by ethanol-fueled high prices, have captured much of the lost cotton and peanut acreage, but poor growing conditions throughout much of the Sunbelt could hamper final acreage and crop yield potential.

Farm Press Publications editors reported these and other regional crop prospects during a recent annual conference at Clarksdale, Miss.

Their reports indicate conditions in the Southwest may be better than in the Southeast, where a prolonged drought threatened planting and early plant growth. A late spring freeze that apparently spared most of the Southwest from severe damage, hammered wheat, fruit, vegetables, and early-planted corn from North Florida, to Virginia and throughout the Mid-South.

Southeast update

“It has been a terrible start to the 2007 production season for growers in the lower Southeast, including Alabama, Georgia, and Florida,” said Southeast Farm Press Editor Paul Hollis.

Part of the region is considered in “extreme or severe drought.” Extreme drought conditions are expected once in 50 years, and severe drought conditions once in 20 years.

“This drought dates back to last fall and winter, when the subsurface soil moisture was never recharged,” Hollis said.

Sub-freezing temperatures during Easter weekend destroyed much of the wheat crop in north Alabama and damaged the crop in other areas. Low temperatures also damaged a portion of the corn crop that wasn't planted early, and growers in north Alabama couldn't find enough seed for replanting.”

Southeast farmers “appear to be following the national trend of planting fewer cotton and peanut acres and substantially more corn than in 2006,” Hollis said.

“According to the USDA's first prospective plantings report of 2007, farmers will plant 20 percent fewer cotton acres, 4 percent fewer peanut acres, and 15 percent more corn than in 2006. In the lower Southeast, Georgia growers are expected to plant 1,150,000 acres of cotton this year, 250,000 less than last year. In Alabama, cotton acres are forecast at 450,000, down 22 percent. North Carolina farmers intend to plant 570,000 cotton acres in 2007, down 300,000 acres from last year.”

Southeast peanut farmers will plant the smallest crop in nearly 100 years, 870,000 acres, a 10 percent drop in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, and Mississippi. “The most significant decline is expected in Georgia, down 14 percent.”

Corn and soybeans will take much of that acreage. In fact, Georgia expects one of the largest increases in soybean acreage in the U.S. this year, a 250,000-acre crop, which would be 95,000 acres or 61 percent above 2006. In Alabama, soybean acres increased 19 percent from last year to 190,000 acres, up 10 percent over the five-year average.”

Georgia corn acreage is expected to total 500,000 acres, up from 220,000 last year, Hollis said; that would be the highest since 1998. In Alabama, corn showed the largest increase of all row crops, up 50 percent from last year at 300,000 acres.

Georgia's wheat for 2007 totaled 400,000 acres, up from 170,000 acres in 2006 and 00,000 more than the December, 2006 intentions survey.

“This would be the highest since 1997,” Hollis said. Winter wheat acreage in Alabama is estimated at 130,000, up 30,000 acres from 2006. “It's yet to be seen how much of this acreage was lost during the Easter weekend freeze.”

Roy Roberson, Southeast Farm Press associate editor, said the Easter weekend freeze caused significant crop damage from “Jacksonville, Florida, to the Delmarva Peninsula.

“We have a high percentage of corn being replanted. Most of the wheat in Virginia was obliterated. Damage is less in the southern part of North Carolina, but significant in South Carolina.”

He said peach and apple crops were devastated by the freeze.

High replant costs — as much as 30 percent of initial expenditures — may limit how much corn is replanted, he said. “The farming industry in the upper Southeast has been devastated.” He said a dry hurricane off the coast of North Carolina and Virginia wiped out much of the corn and cotton.

“Some corn farmers were replanting for the second time,” Roberson said. Soybeans may replace much of the lost cotton and corn.

“Farmers had already spent a lot of money, and soybeans may be the only option left.” He said some farmers may replace corn acreage with cotton.

Fruits and vegetables took the hardest hit from the freeze. “Fruit and vegetable losses account for 60 percent to 75 percent of total crop damage estimates,” Roberson said.

Mid South states

Elton Robinson, Delta Farm Press editor, said the 2007 growing season in the Mid-South got off to an excellent start, then tanked quickly.

“We had a great March, temperatures in the 80s, good soil moisture, and Mid-South producers had an excellent start on corn planting. Then, we had a freeze Easter that killed corn and wheat from McGehee, Ark., up into the Missouri Bootheel.”

Wheat crop damage estimates are still undetermined, Robinson said,“but yield losses could be as high as 80 percent in some areas.

“Corn might have recovered from the freeze had the weather warmed up, but it stayed cool and around 600,000 acres or more had to be replanted. In most cases, growers found replant seed and, with warm May weather, the crop is up and growing.”

He said replanting created a domino effect, delaying cotton planting (still in progress at mid-May).

“Meanwhile, corn fields are getting weedy;with the good weather, both corn and weeds are growing quickly. Essentially, corn replanting pushed us from having enough time for fieldwork into a situation where labor and time are now short.”

Robinson said cotton acreage in the Mid-South has declined as producers turn to corn. “Corn is going to continue to be big player, even if cotton prices swing back up.”

He said reports of cotton's demise are premature. “I think cotton will make a comeback. The export forecast for next year is astounding at 17.5 million bales. If only someone could figure out a way to bring our domestic textile industry back. We're seeing, with the ethanol expansion, that a domestic market is a lot more stable and rewarding than a foreign one.”

David Bennett, associate editor for Delta Farm Press, said Asian soybean rust has been found already in south Louisiana.

“That is 53 days earlier than when it was detected last year, and seems to follow a pattern. The first identification was in November, 2005. Then last year, it came in June. It should be a warning to farmers that rust is in play.”

Bennett said several lawsuits stemming from the Clearfield rice problem are making their way through the courts. “We have no answer yet from APHIS” on how the trait got into rice varieties that were not supposed to have it.

Bennett said Arkansas and Louisiana Extension specialists recommend that farmers manage corn closely following freeze damage. Wheat farmers may find seed costs higher at planting time this fall following losses to the spring cold snap.

Far West

“Overall, crop conditions are excellent in California,” said Western Farm Press Editor Harry Cline.

“Our major concern, as always, is water. Last year, water was going over spillways; this year you can skip rocks across some of the larger lakes. Snow melt is anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent of normal.”

He said growers will pump from wells, making water more expensive and of poorer quality.

Some growers are selling water instead of crops.

“Cotton is an example. It got off to a good start this year, but weather turned cold and wet, and growers see a lot of diseases and other problems. Some are considering replanting, but others are opting not to replant and sell water once allocated for cotton. They stand to make more money off water than cotton.”

Cline said almonds “are the crown jewel of California agriculture,” ranked fourth in the state and likely to knock grapes from the second spot.

“We have 6,000 almond growers farming 740,000 acres (615,000 bearing). This year will be the fifth consecutive crop of 1 billion pounds or more. Crop value is $2.5 billion and climbing. Almonds could represent 10 percent of the total California agricultural production value in a few years.”

Dairies dominate the state's agriculture, he noted, and drive alfalfa acreage, which now totals 1.1 million acres, the largest acreage crop in the state. Other forages such as sudangrass, silage corn, and oats are playing a bigger role as well. “Hay prices have never been higher.”

California corn acreage is up sharply, but still only about 620,000 acres. “Historically, 75 percent of corn goes for silage; we'll produce more for grain this year strictly because of price.”

Cotton has taken a big hit. “Ten years ago, it accounted for more than 1 million acres; this year we'll plant less than 500,000 and more than half that is ELS Pima. Upland acreage is the lowest since 1941.”

An unfavorable farm bill will eliminate upland acreage in the West, including Arizona, Cline said.

“Pima is not significantly affected by farm bill. The loan program is so low, I don't think many Pima farmers grow it for the loan price. Pima is the future of California cotton. We see demand for Acala cotton, but prices won't support it.”

California farmers will plant 500,000 acres of rice in Northern California's heavy soils. “Rice is the mainstay in that area, although increasingly more walnut trees are being planted on rice ground,” Cline said.

The farm bill historically has had minimal impact on California agriculture — “Less than 10 percent of the state's $35 billion ag income comes from direct payments. With falling cotton acreage, the farm bill appears less important.

“However, we've heard about the $5 billion specialty crop package in current farm bill proposals. Specialty crop growers and organizations have joined together nationwide to get a piece of the federal pie for a variety of non-direct payment programs.

“It's a contentious issue. The specialty crop sector is lobbying hard for the money; one of their biggest arguments is the WTO-generated demand that the United States drop its ban on planting specialty crops on program cropland. This, according to specialty crop advocates, will cost $3 billion in lost income.”

Cline said the recent decision to restrict planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa will have a negative effect on the crop and “could spill over into other transgenic crops if environmental wackos try to use the case as precedent. Growers cannot let this decision stand.”

He said citrus freeze losses have been heavy, with as much as 10 million boxes of navels lost. “But it could have been worse — we'll still pack about 40 million boxes of navels. And most growers had insurance.”

California growers have solid alternatives, Cline noted.

And while the vegetable industry is recovering from the E-coli scare, “the industry is very nervous this summer.”

Cary Blake, Western Farm Press associate editor at Phoenix, Ariz., said immigration reform and water are the two big issues facing the state's producers.

“During the winter vegetable-growing months, an estimated 35,000 workers cross the Mexican border daily to work the fields in Yuma, Ariz. A workable immigration reform program is crucial.”

Arizona is in the 12th year of a drought and growers anticipate significantly increased water costs when a good percentage of the state's water resources is turned over to Native American interests.

“Urban growth is taking a lot of land out of production,” Blake said. “Also, a possible new rail line that could run through Yuma's vegetable fields would heavily disrupt agriculture and cause delays in getting vegetables to market, plus impeding the movement of farm labor to and from fields.

“Ethanol plants in the state are likely to induce farmers to forgo cotton production for corn and grain sorghum.”

Southwest situation

“It's wet in the Southwest,” said Ron Smith, editor of Southwest Farm Press. “This is the seventh spring I've lived in the Southwest and I have never seen it greener. Farmers are pleased with the amount of soil moisture available to plant and make a crop this year.

Dry areas, Smith said, still exist in parts of West Texas and around Corpus Christi, but most areas have received good amounts of rainfall through winter and spring. Storms, with high winds, some with tornadoes and hail, have done minimal damage to wheat and early-planted corn.

“The Easter cold snap appears to have caused little damage across the region. Some corn growers had to replant following heavy flooding. Wheat shows relatively little disease pressure and most farmers expect excellent yield. There are a few reports of rust, mildew, and Hessian fly, but overall the crop looks promising.”

Cotton acres will decline. “Most observers peg the reduction at 15 percent to 20 percent. Farmer plans are all over the place, from as high as 40 percent cuts to 10 percent increases. Final acreage may depend on price, planting moisture, availability of irrigation water for corn, experience with grain sorghum, and possible injury to grain crops.”

Southwest farmers are showing increased interest in forage crops; options include millet, corn for silage, sorghum silage, and hay crops for horse, dairy, and cattle. Hay prices have been extremely good the last two years, following two years of extreme drought. Hay provided good markets for failed corn and wheat last year.

Peanut acreage will increase slightly, according to Extension observers.

Oklahoma conditions mirror those in Texas, with generally good moisture across the state. Late April and early May rainfall delayed planting across the region and slowed growth of emerged crops.

Wheat conditions in both Texas and Oklahoma are significantly better than last year's generally poor crop.

Southwest planting intentions include 5.7 million acres of cotton in Texas, 200,000 in Oklahoma; 2 million acres of corn in Texas and 300,000 in Oklahoma; 6 million acres of wheat in Texas and 6.1 million in Oklahoma. Texas grain sorghum plantings will be about 2.4 million with Oklahoma at 240,000.

Peanut acreage is expected to be 190,000 in Texas and 20,000 in Oklahoma. Oklahoma will plant 270,000 acres in soybeans and Texas will plant 100,000. Texas rice acreage is pegged at 159,000 about 10,000 above 2006.

New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma peanut acreage will total about 220,000, a 17 percent increase over last year. Together the three states will plant 2.1 million acres of cotton.

(Farm Press editorial staff members Paul Hollis, Roy Roberson, Elton Robinson, David Bennett, Harry Cline, and Cary Blake contributed to this report.)

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