The business of farming is already susceptible to a nearly unlimited number of variables, things that can determine whether a crop is a bumper or a bust.
The weather is one. Market demand and commodity prices are also in play.
When those factors come together at the same time, and at such extremes like they are this year, it can spell uncertainty for the industry that has been the most profitable and stable in the Mississippi Delta.
The rising waters of the Mississippi River have submerged thousands of acres of farm land at one of the most critical times — planting season. The river reached its crest April 19, well above flood stage from Tunica to Vicksburg, and the Army Corps of Engineers has said it will take weeks to recede and allow farmers stalled by the flood to get back in the field.
“No cotton has been planted here,” said Jim Pegram, general manager of Parker Tractor and Implement Co. in Tunica. “There have been some replants on some corn, but no cotton yet.”
Aside from high water, the cotton market has been down the past couple of years. Prices at market have not been high enough to justify the large expense cotton requires to plant and grow. That has meant a shift in strategy for farmers and farm equipment dealers. The price of commodities — soybeans, corn and wheat —has remained strong, leading to more grain bins in the Delta and fewer cotton gins.
Pegram said he has heard the cotton market could rebound in 2009. That would be good news.
“The dollar turns a bunch of times with (cotton),” Pegram said. “It helps your communities and your schools.”
A change in crops has forced farm equipment dealers to change their inventories. Cotton pickers were the financial bell cow for dealers for years. Those have been replaced by combines, which can pick corn, soybeans and wheat off the stalk.
“We’ve definitely had to adjust,” said Billy Wyatt, general manager of Ayres-Delta Tractor in Yazoo City. “We’ve had to cut back on expenses.”
Yazoo County has experienced a swollen Yazoo River, whose flow to the Mississippi in Vicksburg has been stalled, and has had some of the same problems with submerged farm land as Tunica.
“It’s affecting us a good bit,” Wyatt said.
Wyatt and Pegram each said that before the heavy rains in the upper Mississippi Valley formed a wall of water that flowed south, they were both expecting good years.
“We had some good things going before then,” Wyatt said.
“We’re not back where we were, but all our tractors are delivered,” Pegram said.
How this year’s crop fares will hinge on how long it takes floodwater to recede, both agree. If it lingers any longer than a few weeks, the prime planting season may be lost. But Mississippi’s farmers have weathered storms like this in the past, and have lived to farm another year. Wyatt said he expects nothing less from his farmers in Yazoo County.
“You’re always optimistic about it,” he said.
Pegram has been surprised by the optimism he has encountered when he has visited with his farmers. Despite legitimate reasons for gloom, he said Tunica County farmers remain upbeat.
“I’ve seen more encouragement and positive attitudes, even though the price of fertilizer and fuel is so high,” he said. “The only negative is the price of fertilizer, and you never know with irrigation. I do see some positive things in farming. We’ve had some good sales this year, and we’re coming off a good year last year. But that’s because we have good farmers.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@ msbusiness.com .