Harvest Time: Markets, weather shape potential good farm year

Farmers have started to harvest their crops after a late start in planting. (Errol Castens)

Farmers have started to harvest their crops after a late start in planting. (Errol Castens)

By Errol Castens
Daily Journal

Farmers and crop specialists are cautiously optimistic about major agricultural commodities in Northeast Mississippi after crops got off to a very late start due to a cool and wet spring.

It’s one of the busiest times of the year for farmers in the region. Any lengthy rural drive will show thousands of bales of hay in fields and in clusters, countless acres of soybeans from deep green to yellowing and the occasional cotton field, where new blooms and open bolls stand side-by-side.

With reasonably favorable prices for most commodities, the weather is always on growers’ minds.

Howard Martin was combining corn on business partner Errol Koehn’s farm Wednesday near Okolona and anticipating the harvest on his own land nearby in the next few days. A few weeks later, they’ll begin harvesting soybeans.

“We need dry weather to harvest the corn now, but the beans could use a little more rain,” Martin said. “If you know how to make that happen, you’d be in some serious money.”

Martin said the corn harvest will take about 10 days, with some going to a local grain company and other parts being dried for delivery to an Alabama pork-producing company.

Donny Stokes of Tippah County is a partner in 1,300 acres of soybeans.

“It was a late start for us on account of rain,” he said. “I’m usually half and half on corn and beans, but it was too wet, and I didn’t get any corn planted.”

Stokes said his fields are spread over an eight-mile stretch east of Ripley, and they reflect the randomness of summer rains.

“We got the bean crop in, and right in here we haven’t had much rain on some of it since June. I’m going to say right here we haven’t had over and an inch-and-a-half.”

Because Stokes will start harvesting beans perhaps as early as this week, he’s not really hoping for rain at this point.

The move to soybeans and corn has changed the face of farming in the region.

“Grain and soybean prices are favorable – a drastic difference from 10 years ago, but then input costs are drastically higher, too,” said Extension soybean specialist Trent Irby. “For soybeans, $13 is a really good price, and we had some opportunities for up to $17 during part of the summer. We have more acres of soybeans than any other crop. Corn is also fairly popular in Northeast Mississippi. Cotton is the most expensive to produce.”

State cotton specialist Darrin Dodds of the Mississippi State University Extension Service said cotton in the region is doing reasonably well considering its late start.

“Typically we start planting in late April and finish in late May, but the majority of planting this year was May 15 – June 5, with some even after July 1,” he said. “As a whole, I think it’ll be an average to slightly above average crop.”

Dodds said as with other commodities, weather can still make or break the crop.

“We need the heat to stay with us as long as possible,” he said. “Any rain at this point is probably going to be more detrimental than helpful.”

Once the undisputed king of Southern agriculture, cotton now runs a distant third to soybeans and corn in terms of acres planted.

“Statewide, acres are down very substantially from historic numbers. From 2006 and prior, we were sitting at a million to a million-and-a-half acres,” Dodds said. “We’re at about 275,000 acres now.”

Part of the reason, he said, is very favorable prices for soybeans and corn for the past several years. Another is the complexity and expense of growing cotton, with applications of growth regulators, insecticides and other inputs required more often than on the grain crops.

One thing in cotton’s favor, he said, is its adaptability to the climate.

“There’s very little irrigation in Northeast Mississippi. If the weather ever turns really hot and dry in the summer, cotton is more drought-tolerant,” Dodds said. “My gut feeling is that cotton acreage is going to go up next year. Eighty-five to 90 cents a pound makes cotton competitive in dryland farming.”

Livestock and hay
Stanley Wise Jr. is Mississippi State University’s Extension Service director for Union County and a part-time diversified farmer in Pontotoc County.

“One of the biggest activities you’re going to see right now on farms is baling hay,” he said. “We’re baling on our place, and you can see it going on all over Northeast Mississippi.”

That hay harvest supports the state’s horse industry and the cattle herds that are found in every county in Mississippi on an estimated 16,000 to 18,000 farms.

“Cattle fit in with several other farm enterprises,” said Jane Parish, an MSU Extension cattle specialist. “We see row crops with cattle, wildlife and cattle together where people have hunting leases and pasture, forestry and cattle.

“Nationwide, the numbers are down, but we’ve been stable the past few years,” she said. “Mississippi sits at just under a million head of cattle.”

Parish said about half of that number is traditional cow-calf operations, while the rest is mostly stockers, where buyers bring in animals ranging from just-weaned calves to culled cows to fatten them on grass.

One reason for Mississippi’s stability in cattle numbers is drought in some parts of the country, especially Texas, in recent years.

“A lot of cattle have moved into this part of the world,” Parish said. “It may be temporary, but anytime you bring in more animals, you’re increasing economic opportunities here in Mississippi.”

One Mississippi farm enterprise not enjoying particularly favorable market conditions is aquaculture.

As with several other farmers in the Black Belt Prairie – and many more in the Delta – Martin also grows catfish, which is netted and trucked to an Indianola processor by a custom harvester.

“Catfish takes a lot of management, but it doesn’t take a lot of your time,” he said.

What makes fish farming so challenging is the squeeze between price competition from Asian imports and high feed costs that reflect the prices of soybeans and corn.

“It’s the mom-and-pop restaurants that keep us going, where people want good, Southern-style catfish, and they want to know it’s farm-raised in the United States,” Martin said. He urges current producers to stay in the business but would not encourage others to invest in it. He joked, though, that the same advice may apply across the agricultural spectrum.

“If you’ve got enough money to farm,” he said, “you probably should do something else.”

errol.castens@journalinc.com