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Tight margins on crops force hard choices for Mississippi farmers

Photo courtesy of Mississippi Agriculture/Journal Communications, MSagriculture.com Every year brings new challenges for Mississippi farmers.

Photo courtesy of Mississippi Agriculture/Journal Communications, MSagriculture.com
Every year brings new challenges for Mississippi farmers.

By JACK WEATHERLY 

Last year, Mississippi farmers had a bumper harvest, but that was not necessarily a cause for celebration.

Production is one thing, price is another.

Because of a pattern of high productivity in the past couple of years, the market has reacted with lower prices, according to John Michael Riley, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University.

Farmers are “on edge” as they weigh which crops to emphasize and which to back off on, Riley said in a telephone interview this week.

“Early indications are that producers are going to lean on soybeans in this period of low prices,” Riley said.

Soybeans were by far the biggest crop in terms of harvested land in 2014, according to the final report from the USDA issued last month.

Acreage for the crop was about 2.2 million acres, up from 1.99 million in 2013. Yield was likewise up substantially — to 52 bushels per acre compared with 46 the year before. Consequently, production reached 114.4 million bushels, compared with 91.5 million the previous year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will survey farmers starting in late February and issue an acreage report for 2015 on March 31.

Meantime, an institute at the University of Missouri predicts prices to drop in 2015 in U.S. markets. Soybeans, are seen sliding to $8.76 a bushel, from $10.02. Cotton is expected to hit 59.2 cents per pound compared with 60.4 cents. Winter wheat is seen sliding to $4.95 per bushel, down 93 cents. Sorghum follows suit, dropping 22 cents a bushel to $3.80.

There are no easy choices, according to Riley.

“Production questions are what’s going to rule the acreage number,” he said.

“The producers are going to be looking at ways to cut costs. What kind of variety is going to give me the best yield? What kind of herbicide or pesticide applications do I need to maintain? Which ones can I cut out without giving up too much yield risk?”

Demand is pretty stable across the board, which offers stability on that side of the equation, Riley said. But he noted that cotton, a major export commodity, is being hurt by the strong U.S. dollar, which makes it more expensive offshore.

Cotton’s harvested acreage in Mississippi rose to 420,000 acres last year, up from 287,000 the previous year, the lowest since records have been kept starting in 1866.

Jeremy Jack, chief executive of the 8,500-acre Silent Shade Planting Co. at Belzoni, says he will let cotton sit this one out.

He will divide 7,000 acres evenly between soybeans and corn, followed by 1,200 acres of rice and 300 acres of peanuts.

Jack, 32, a second generation farmer in the family-run business, agreed with Riley about what the year will turn on, in terms of what producers can control.

Producton is going to be key, Jack said, but in terms of of applications, “it’s really going to be putting exactly what you need on, but nothing extra this year.”

“When we get paid, we’ve got two things — price and the amount of bushels per acre.

Here is how other crops fared in 2014:

Rice: acreage in the state was 190,000 acres, up from 124,000. Total production was 11.4 million pounds, compared with 91.5 million the year before.

Sorghum: 105,000 acres were harvested, up 69 percent from 2013. The average yield was 80 bushels per acre, down 14 bushels from the previous year, but production was 114 million bushels, the highest on record.

Sweet potatoes: 21,500 acres were harvested, up 10 percent. The average yield was was 17,500 pounds, down 500. However, production was 376 million, up 7 percent.

Winter wheat: seeded acreage is expected to decrease 35 percent from 150,000 acres in 2013.

Hay: Six hundred thousand acres were harvested, down 17 percent from the previous year. The average yield was 2.6 tons per acre, up 0.1. Production totaled 1.56 tons, down 13 percent.

Peanuts: 31,000 were harvested, down 6 percent. The average yield was 4,000 pounds, up 300. Production was 124 million pounds, up 2 percent.

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