Season of hope deteriorates for Escambia County farmers
By By BUCK FARRIOR – County Extension Agent
Escambia County farmers planted nearly 28,000 acres of cotton and 3,000 acres of peanuts in the spring of 2002. Until mid-September they were anticipating a record harvest. In late September the rain began and continued. The Brewton Research Center of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station reported 19.89 inches from Sept. 25 to Nov. 13. Craig Frazier, who manages the Hauss Nursery North of Atmore on Hwy. 21 for the Alabama Forestry Commission, reported 25 inches over the same period. He also said the nursery missed some of the intense rain experienced by neighboring farmers. His records show that rain
occurred on 19 days in October. He also indicated drying conditions were poor between rains. Normal rainfall for the October is 2.92 inches.
The fluffy white bolls of cotton strung out and began to deteriorate, and the seeds in the locks began to sprout. Peanut vines began to deteriorate from diseases and harvesting equipment could no longer pick up the nuts.
Farmers tried in vain to get into fields to harvest the crop between rains. This left the farmers frustrated, anxious and discouraged. The fields were rutted and for the most part not harvested. Normally, harvest is virtually complete by now but this year over 80 percent of the cotton and half of the peanuts have not been harvested.
Drying conditions and the weather for the remainder of the year does not look good for a continued harvest. Much of the crop that has been harvested is badly damaged.
Last year Escambia County farmers harvested 42,800 bales of cotton and 11,415 tons of peanuts. The average sale price for the farmers on the Gulf Coast Farm Analysis Association (GCFAA) in 2001 was $460 per ton for peanuts and 61 cents per pound for cotton. Using these sale prices, last year's cotton crop was worth approximately $13 million and the peanuts were worth $5.25 million. Last year's prices were lower than the average of the previous four years. This year's price will likely average much lower than even last year. The GCFAA four-year average for cotton is 72 cents per pound and $560 per ton for peanuts. This year's poor quality, low yield and low markets are causing a major hardship on farmers and agribusiness.
Tim Currie of Frank Currie Gin, a division of Alabama Farmers Coop, was expecting to gin 50,000 bales of cotton this year. He has ginned 6,200 bales so far and he doesn't think he will get to 10,000. Currie ginned the first 5,000 bales with only two bales grading below grade. Recently some entire loads of cotton have graded below grade. This means that this cotton is worth a maximum of six to eight cents per pound on the world market. Government programs could pay an additional six to eight cents but the price is still dismal even after the government assistance. This poor-quality, low-value cotton is extremely difficult to gin and may not be marketable at any price. Gins only make money if they gin cotton.
Tony James is the manager of Atmore Truckers, the Alabama Farmers Coop Store in Atmore.
The co-op recently put a sizeable investment into a peanut buying station. James was expecting to buy 6,000 to 7,000 tons of peanuts this year. So far he has bought 2,500 tons. James believes the harvest to be virtually over because of the amount of rain, the lack of drying conditions and the condition of the peanuts that remain in the fields. If he doesn't buy peanuts the store doesn't get a commission. This reduction in income makes meeting payroll and servicing debt more difficult and the business is reducing equity.
Farmers and agribusiness people are large portions of the Escambia County economy. They buy fuel, chemicals, tires, vehicles, tractors, clothes and groceries. The crop failure means trucks are not running, farmers are not buying and agricultural debt is increasing. The agricultural community will be recovering from this year for a long time.