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Southeastern farmers grow big flocks and diverse crops; Hearty hybrids and energy demand make the Northern Plains a hotbed of activity

Bob Burgdorfer, Senior Editor

October 16, 2014

7 Min Read

When Georgia's favorite son Jimmy Carter became president in 1977, it put the state, the South and peanuts in the headlines.

Now, nearly 40 years later, the South is much more than just peanuts and cotton, although they remain important crops. Chickens rule this roost when looking solely at dollars raised by agriculture, but an impressive diversity of crops makes the area a great place for farming.

Look at the numbers. Farm income in Mississippi jumped 68% from 2007 to 2012, according to USDA's latest farm census this spring. In Alabama, it was up 44%; Arkansas, 43%; and Georgia, 36% — nice growth considering the national average was up 24%.

Sumter, Macon and Pulaski counties in Georgia, about 75 miles south of Atlanta, are examples of the region's agriculture diversity, which has Farm Futures rating this area as one of the Best Places to Farm.

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Chicken production flourishes here along with corn, cotton, peanuts and wheat. Also, Macon County is the Peach State's top producer of the fruit, with 2012 production valued over $9 million.

"We are in an area where you can grow just about anything," says Barry Martin of Pulaski County and Georgia's 2012 Farmer of the Year. Martin's income is up about 20% over the past three years, thanks to good prices for his corn, cotton, peanuts and wheat.

This year may be different, as low prices for nearly all crops may be tough on farmers. Martin says he is prepared. He and other farmers used past profits to add irrigation to fields, pay down debt and put money in the bank.

"Our financial position has really improved. We have been able to service debt," he says.

There have been bumps on the South's road to prosperity. Chicken producers cut production when corn prices topped $8 per bushel and are now slowly rebuilding flocks with an annualized national increase of less than 2% set for this year and 3% next year.

"It takes some time to build your breeder flocks," Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, says of the recovery. "We still haven't experienced that large percentage growth we had in the 1990s."

Georgia farmers were helped by a 2013 law that waives sales taxes on farm inputs. That spurred equipment purchases, land acquisitions and production-boosting investments like irrigation, says Bill Starr, county Extension coordinator for Sumter and Macon counties. "We probably added 10% to 15% in irrigated land in the last two years."

For equipment, cotton farmers added a new bale-type picker. The machine combines several harvesting steps into one, expediting harvest and lowering production costs.

"That has revolutionized the cotton harvest," says Starr. "That has been the biggest transition of equipment that I have seen."

In crop production, conservation tillage has made great strides in the region, as it saves wear-and-tear on equipment, conserves soil moisture, reduces erosion and helps farmer income. The practice involves minimum tillage and the use of cover crops to control weeds.

Martin is a big advocate and boasts that his 2003 model year tractor has 4,000 hours on the clock, a number he says would be 10,000 if he had gone back to conventional tillage.

"In conservation tillage, you do not have to make 10 to 15 trips over the field," he says. "That is good for the farmer."

Northern Plains: America's new energy belt
Ten years ago, corn in North Dakota may have been a rare sight. Now, shorter-seasoned, heartier hybrids that can be harvested before the onset of the state's early winters grow from the fertile Red River Valley in the east to the Bakken oil fields in the west.

Welcome to the nation's new energy belt. Stretching from northwest Iowa to the Canadian border, this region has been fueled by gains in ethanol and oil production, and enjoyed better yields in 2012 than elsewhere when drought ravaged the Midwest. In North Dakota, the shale oil boom helped support land values, as growers on the northern Plains switched to higher-value corn and soybeans. Corn feeds ethanol plants, is shipped out to cattle and hog farms, or is sent off to overseas customers, bringing new wealth to this region, once primarily known for spring wheat and sugarbeets.

Meanwhile in Iowa, 42 corn-fed biofuel plants produce nearly a quarter of the country's ethanol to give farmers ready markets for their corn and contributed to that state's 52% increase in farmer income from 2007 to 2012.

"I can see an ethanol plant from my front porch," says Brian Kemp, who has a number of plants within 75 miles of his farm in Sibley, Iowa, near the Minnesota border.

The arrival of the ethanol plants pulled up northwest Iowa corn prices from what Kemp says was the lowest basis in the country.

Now several counties from Iowa north to the Dakotas have made our Farm Futures' list of Best Places to Farm.

Soybeans are growing on 6 million planted acres in North Dakota, up nearly 30% from last year, placing the state fourth in acreage behind Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota.

"A good number of farms are going into a corn-soybean rotation with some wheat," says Steve Metzger, a farm business management instructor in Carrington, N.D.

According to USDA's farm census, cropland and farm buildings were valued at $56 billion in 2012, up 83% from 2007. Farm income jumped 76% in that time to $4.56 billion statewide, or $147,128 per farm.

Corn and soybeans fueled the growth, generating higher returns than wheat and sunflowers. In order for corn and soybeans to flourish, the weather had to change — and it did. Rainfall is now 20 inches a year, compared with 14 to 15 about 20 years ago. New technology has given farmers quick-maturing corn and herbicide-resistant soybeans suitable for the Northern environment.

"We have been in a wet cycle for basically 20 years," says Bob Wisness, a North Dakota farmer in Arnegard in the middle of the Bakken oil fields. "You cannot deny that that has contributed greatly to corn and soybean production in the state."

The 100-year average rainfall for North Dakota is 17.5 inches, but has been above that nine years since 2000. In three of the past four years, more than 20 inches fell statewide, with the 2012 drought year being the exception.

"We have basically quadrupled the average income on our farms in the last seven years. This year with crop prices trending down, we are going to see some of that slipping off. But we have had a tremendous run-up here," Metzger says

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The success of corn and soybeans has raised land values. "Prior to 2007, you could buy tillable land at $800 to $1,000 per acre. That same land today is $3,000 to $4,000, and we have some land as high as $7,000," he says.

North Dakota's success came with some growing pains. Crop production has increased in tandem with greater oil production, making it difficult for railroads to serve both industries. Because of the harsh winter, local grain elevators filled up and farmers had to pile commodities on the ground, or truck bushels long distances to other markets.

In 2012, North Dakota had 860.7 million bushels of grain storage, while the state produced nearly 890 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat, the census shows. Add in barley, canola, dry beans, sunflowers and other crops, and that capacity falls short.

"The infrastructure has to get built up at the farm level," says Brad Thykeson, a corn and soybean farmer in Portland, N.D., near the Red River Valley. "Terminal loading also has to get built up, too. That will take time. Ten years ago we were very deficient on corn storage and drying capability. It was one of those things that needed time to grow."

Did you miss a story in our Best Places to Farm series?
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