All signs point to improved 2003 for lower Southeast

The 2002 crop production year is one best forgotten by most growers in the lower Southeast. As one farmer in the region was heard to ask, “How do you explain that you suffered through a drought and a flood all in one crop year?”

Periods of drought occurring throughout the growing season followed by a procession of tropical storms at harvest spelled disaster for many producers in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, with some old-timers saying it was the worst harvest conditions for peanuts and cotton they had ever witnessed.

But don't dwell too heavily on the past. Two-thousand and three has to be better, and will be better, at least according to the forecasters, prognosticators and soothsayers among us. The planets apparently are properly aligned this year in favor of Southeastern farmers.

Already, Georgia growers have received a declaration from the state's Environmental Protection Division (EPD) that 2003 will not be a drought year. And you thought it was impossible to predict the weather for more than a few hours in advance.

After paying farmers in southwest Georgia more than $9 million in the past two years not to irrigate about 41,000 acres of cropland, the EPD has deemed that such action will not be necessary in 2003. According to the EPD's press release, the agricultural drought that has gripped the region for several years officially ended this past fall, and “it isn't expected to return anytime soon.”

And the EPD's declaration is supported by experts such as Georgia's State Climatologist, David Stooksbury, who says the long-term drought that has plagued the region since May of 1998 is “all but over.”

Stooksbury says all indicators of drought are pointed in the right direction in Georgia — rainfall, soil moisture, stream flows, lake levels and groundwater level. In addition, the El Nino weather pattern is expected to continue through spring, bringing a continuation of plentiful rainfall.

But even with ideal weather conditions, only half the battle is won. What about markets and crop prices for the coming year? The good news continues on this front, with most agricultural economists agreeing that farmers should see better prices for what they produce this year.

A look at the 2003 Farm Outlook and Planning Guide, published by the University of Georgia, reveals that supply and demand would appear to favor cotton farmers this year. In 2002, the world grew 87.4 million bales of cotton or 11 percent fewer than in 2001. Production declined in the major cotton-producing countries, including China, India, Australia and the United States.

While the world supply is lower, the demand for cotton is expected to rise next year to about 96.4 million bales, up 2.4 percent from 2001. The 2003 cotton price outlook is encouraging, say the experts.

Peanut producers, growing their second crop under a new program, will have to watch the markets closely to get better-than-average prices this year, according to the economists. Like cotton, peanut prices are very susceptible to supply and demand. The 2002 U.S. peanut crop wasn't a good one, and this drop in supply could mean higher prices for farmers in the future.

Poultry growers can expect slightly higher prices in 2003, but an oversupply of eggs will continue to hurt egg prices. U.S. beef production is expected to total 25.95 billion pounds this year, down from 27 billion pounds last year. This lower supply should increase prices for farmers as beef demand is expected to remain strong.

One area of uncertainty for 2003 continues to be the tobacco industry. While tobacco remains under a federal quota-based system, changes in the industry and the mood in Washington toward quota-based farm policies point to a potential tobacco quota buyout.

The 2003 flue-cured quota will be 526.4 million pounds or 9.6 percent less than in 2002 and 40 percent less than in 1997. With lower production, most growers have received prices at about the government support level. This past year, 95 percent of Georgia's tobacco was contracted directly with tobacco companies.

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