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Tough 2001 leaves farmers uncertain

Remember those “Scrooge McDuck” comic books where Scrooge would dive off a diving board into a bank vault full of money? Scrooge would then swim around enjoying his wealth.

“That's not the life of a row crop farmer in Ashley County (Arkansas),” says Kenneth Williams, county staff chair for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

That's especially not true after the 2001 season. “They're licking their wounds and trying to figure out how they can afford to grow another crop next year,” Williams said.

The last 10 years or so have been trying for the county's 120 or so farmers. There used to be a lot more farmers, maybe 250 a decade ago, Williams said. Years of problems with weather, insects, diseases and low prices have decimated their numbers.

While the number of farmers is shrinking, the size of farms is growing. As farmers leave, their land is absorbed by other farms.

Despite this, nearly all of the farmers will be back in business next year, Williams said.

If Ashley County farmers are like farmers in Phillips County, Ark., they don't want to do anything else, says Jerry Williams, county Extension staff chair. “They've farmed all their lives, and they don't know anything else.”

The census says the county has 400 farmers, but Williams figures that number is high. “In the last 10 years, we've lost just a handful of farmers. It was a lot worse in the 1980s. But it's not over yet. Things are tough, and they're still hanging on, but I don't know how long they'll be able to.”

Both county agents said farmers have a lot of questions about 2002.

In Ashley County, farmers are trying to make decisions about fuel, fertilizers and seed varieties, but they're uncertain about what crops they'll grow. That makes it hard to fill out the detailed production loan information that lenders need.

In Phillips County, farmers won't really know their situation until the first of next year. “A lot of it will depend on what their bankers want them to do,” Jerry Williams said.

Overshadowing everything is a new farm bill under discussion that could drastically affect planting decisions when it's passed.

“Right now, farmers are waiting to see what the new farm bill says before they decide what to plant,” Jerry Williams.

Kenneth Williams said row crop farmers want to grow the right mix of crops that will bring them the most money.

Ashley County is typically a cotton county. Cotton is expensive to grow, Williams said, but farmers can make more money on it than other crops when yields and prices are good. When they're not, cotton farmers can take it on the chin harder than farmers raising other crops.

In Phillips County, another big cotton county, some farmers are thinking about growing corn next year. “There's quite a bit of soil sampling going own. Farmers want to know what nutrients they need for corn,” Jerry Williams said.

Both county agents urged farmers to attend production meetings over the winter. “We have no control over the market,” Kenneth Williams said. But farmers can learn about technology and production methods at the meetings that will allow them to increase yields and cut costs.

Meanwhile, farmers can take a breather this time of year. “A lot of them are tired and taking some time off. They're getting to know their families again,” Jerry Williams said.

Lamar James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.

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