Corn makes 2007 planting a mystery

In my 30 plus years of following agriculture, I don’t remember being in February with so little known about the upcoming cropping year in the Southeast. The farm bill, upcoming WTO negotiations and a plethora of production challenges contribute to the uncertainty, but at the center of it is a four letter word for some in agriculture — corn.

In the Southeast, cotton has once again become king, but the crown is tarnished, and it appears something on the order of 150,000 to 200,000 acres of cotton may go out of production, just in the upper Southeast. Most assume much of that acreage will go into corn, but maybe not.

There may be a shortage of corn seed, but no one seems to know for sure. Corn prices may fall dramatically once the euphoria over ethanol production dies down, or the Bush administration fails to renew the embargo on foreign ethanol coming into the U.S., but no one knows for sure. It seems there is much more uncertainty about growing corn than $4 per bushel prices can easily overcome.

Tyron Spearman, whom I’ve known during all my years in agriculture, put it best when explaining the relationship between corn acreage and peanut acreage in 2007. Tyron, who probably knows more about peanut marketing than any person alive and runs his own company, the Spearman Agency, among other chores, jokingly said “most folks are either going to plant corn or get drunk, sober up and plant peanuts.”

Somewhat more serious observations are that peanut acreage in the Southeast will drop another 10 percent and production in the Virginia-Carolina belt will remain at 2006 levels at best, but probably drop another five percent or so.

So, the big question in agriculture in the Southeast is: what will be planted in all the acreage vacated by cotton? And the answer is, as of the first week in February nobody knew. Of course, nobody seems to know exactly how many acres will go out of cotton. Low prices, political uncertainties, numerous production problems all point to less cotton, but most cotton farmers are not playing their planting cards just yet.

In Virginia, where cotton acreage is expected to drop as much as 30 percent, it is expected many of these acres will be planted to wheat in the fall. In southwestern Virginia a significant amount of acreage will likely go into tobacco.

In North Carolina, where 50,000 to 60,000 acres of cotton are expected to go out of production, and some experts say 100,000 acres is entirely possible, much of the acreage will likely go into corn and soybeans. The state already produces over a million acres of soybeans, and the biodiesel prospects for soy oil keep interest high in the crop.

In the Southeast, the trump card will be Georgia. With the most cotton acres and the most peanut acres, Georgia farmers are clearly in the largest majority with the largest risks. With both ethanol and biodiesel plans in the works in Georgia, soybeans and corn would seem a natural for increased production, but few will even speculate as to how many acres of these crops may go into production.

In most cases growers cannot afford to leave land vacant, so something will likely go on most the acreage, but what crops will go where is mystery that is way behind schedule for solving. Eventually we will know what farmers choose to plant. In the interim, the clock is ticking and corn planting time in the lower Southeast is only a few weeks away.

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