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Uncertainty clouding good times for California-Arizona agriculture

California and Arizona farmers seemingly are doing well these days.

Pick a crop; alfalfa, almonds, garlic, onions, processing tomatoes, pistachios, wheat, walnuts, and on and on. It is hard to find a real loser in today's Western agriculture.

Some — cotton specifically — are not doing as well as others. Cotton yields and quality have been good and there are buyers in the world market. Cotton consumption continues to rise; however, there is more cotton in warehouses worldwide than growing demand can absorb. In the U.S. there are so many alternatives to cotton — permanent and annual — that are doing much better economically.

Most crops on the good return list are doing well for one reason: there is demand worldwide and locally for what Western farmers are producing. Part of this demand is due to solid promotional efforts from grower-funded marketing orders or commissions. Some demand is coming from production problems elsewhere in the world. This is the case with wheat.

The forage and feed crops winners in the West are tied directly or indirectly to the dairy industry. The demand for corn for ethanol certainly has impacted corn prices, but it is the dairy industry that is largely driving corn demand in California and elsewhere.

Dairymen roamed the countryside last summer looking for silage corn and writing big checks to snatch it away from the grain market. Demand for forage was so strong that corn stalks in many fields that made it to the grain stage were not disked in, but baled for forage. Dairymen even bought fields of picked Tulare County cotton last year to bale for bedding.

A veteran Imperial Valley farmer buttonholed me recently to say he has contracted 2008 durum wheat for $15 per hundredweight — $300 per ton. He said he can make $500 per acre with that contract and spend the summer in San Diego. Winter wheat reached more than $200 per ton early this fall.

It has been a long time since farmers have looked down a crop choice list and seen as much potential black. Farmers are pleased, but not particularly happy. Water and environmental issues and bureaucratic and judicial meddling are clouding the blue skies.

Now should be good times for Western agriculture, but there is more uncertainty then ever before. A lot of economic growth will be left in the barn this year due to doubt about the future. Rather than cashing in on the good times, many growers are worried about survival in a world of unknowns.

Of course, farmers don't get much sympathy these days, thanks to the media perception that they are akin to criminals, spoiling the environment while filling their bank accounts.

Too many are munching away on America's bounty while reading or watching stories about saving fish. Few Americans realize that when agriculture does well, America does well. When farmers do well, there are jobs and economic growth in towns and cities large and small. And it is not at the expense of the environment.

These should be happy times on the farm. Too much angst for that.

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