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Farming families struggle through 'perfect storm'

For some 25 years now, Kendall Garraway has been making a living off the land. His Hinds County farm is diversified, offering row crops, cattle and timber. As with all veteran farmers, he has seen his shares of ups and downs.

However, the current situation facing farmers is unique, and not in a good way, either.

“In my mind, there has never been this level of volatility,” Garraway said. A family man with children, when asked how he insulates his family from just how difficult things are, he just gave a sigh, and said, “It’s pretty tough.”

It is ironic that Mississippi’s farmers are now struggling to put food on their own table. They are faced with a “perfect storm” — escalating input costs and soft commodity prices while the cost of living continues to rise. For too many farming families, 2009 could mark the end of the road.

John Phillips, a veteran Yazoo County family farmer, said, “Unless rice turns a profit, and I haven’t checked my budget figures on rice, there is no crop any creative mind in the South can turn a profit on right now.”

Bernie Jordan, which operates a row crop farm in Yazoo and Humphreys counties, echoed their words.

“In my 30 years, this is about as bleak as I’ve seen it,” Jordan said. “I used to pride myself on long-range planning. The last couple of years, it’s been difficult to plan. This year, planning is out the window — it’s impossible.”

Garraway is somewhat lucky. His children do not actually live on the farm, and are not aware of the dire conditions. Jordan is not that fortunate.

“I’ve got four daughters,” he said, “two that are grown and two in high school. My wife and I try to communicate with them, let them know what’s going on — at least what we feel like they need to know. But they probably notice it more when they see my wife and I eating out a little less, or maybe curtailing a vacation. They know it’s bad.”

It, indeed, is bad, and not looking to get any better in the short term. According to Andy Prosser, director of marketing and public relations at the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, “hurting” is probably too weak a descriptive of what farming families are going through currently.

“It is getting very tough,” Prosser said. “Those high prices you’re seeing at the grocery store, farmers are not seeing that money.

“Farmers are going to have to use best practices, and some crops simply are not going to be profitable. There are a lot of options farmers will have to explore if they want to just break even.”

Prosser said another thing working against the Magnolia State’s farming community is time. Decisions about what crops to plant, when — or whether to plant at all — have to be made in January and February.

“It’s going to be a very difficult year,” Prosser said. He added that many farmers might elect not to plant at all, but, instead, enroll acreage in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s conservation programs and let the land lie idle.

When asked if conservation programs were a viable option for them, both Garraway and Jordan said they would not go that route, with Jordan adding that he has a rent payment to make on some of his property, meaning he will have to plant something.

That “something” will probably be soybeans. Jordan said soybeans are the only crop he sees that has a remote chance of turning a profit in 2009. He said he is a dedicated cotton farmer, and hates to turn away from the crop that was once king.

He added that this change from a cotton culture to grain presents a dire – and perhaps permanent – problem. Jordan owns a cotton gin, which over the last few years has gone from approximately 20 customers to four. And he owns a cotton warehouse in Yazoo City that last year did not store a single bale of cotton and is threatened with closing. He said the loss of cotton farming infrastructure is a long-term threat.

“If gins or warehouses close, they’re not going to reopen,” he said. “There’s almost a 100 percent chance that they will be gone for good, and replacing them in the future will be cost prohibitive.”

The current situation is troublesome for all Mississippians. Agriculture is the state’s number one industry, ringing in at approximately $6 billion. The total economic impact of the industry is in the $20-billion range, and agriculture effects one in every four jobs in the state, according to Prosser.

Garraway agrees, and said if people had a better understanding of today’s family farm, they would see just how big of an impact it would have if the agriculture industry collapsed.

Garraway said, “The picture painted of the family farm is a guy, 20 acres and a tractor. That may make for a pretty picture, but that’s just not the way it is. You have fewer and fewer farmers farming more and more acres. And then there are the farm suppliers, equipment dealers and others who are impacted. So, yeah, it’s bad for all of us.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at wally.northway@msbusiness.com.


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