Growers look to upgrade equipment

Financing was sometimes a problem and some machinery just cost too much, but the southern farmers who attended machinery shows this winter seemed to have a more positive attitude than in the recent past

At least, that was the impression of exhibitors Southeast Farm Press talked to in preparing this story.

One of them, Greg Locklear of Gadsen Ala., helped operate exhibits at the Southern Farm Show in Raleigh, N.C., and National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Ky.

“I didn't hear the kind of negativity you run into at shows like this,” said Locklear, sales representative for Bushmaster. “People were more optimistic than I was expecting. There was a little bit of reservation about sitting down and writing a check, but again it wasn't (more than) what I was expecting.”

Crop prices had them encouraged, he said. “Usually the purse strings are pretty tight, but commodity prices are higher than they have ever been.”

Bushmaster's main line is rotary cutters, he said. “We also sell skid steer attachments, and there is a growing market for them.”

Financing was sometimes an issue for farmers looking to upgrade, but not really for the Bushmaster line. “Most of our products list for less than $4,000, and they don't require a capital expenditure,” said Locklear. Nevertheless farmers seemed very aware of the “tightness” in the economy, he noted.

Tobacco and cotton farmers seemed to have a little less to look forward to this season than grain growers.

“I think tobacco farmers are in fair financial position,” said Ron Taylor, president of Taylor Mfg. “But still, I am seeing a number quitting. They don't want to spend their buyout money on capital expenditures if they aren't sure that next year's crop can pay its own way.”

For farmers who want to upgrade their machinery at a reduced price, there is still second hand machinery on the market. “The little I have seen at auctions has sold well,” he said.

Taylor said it looks like more tobacco farmers are getting out than are getting bigger. “There is no influx of new growers and no (net) expansion taking place.”

What Taylor was selling the most was tobacco handling accessories that help get leaf to market. “We have sold some boxes but not many new barns and harvesters.”

Taylor Mfg. also has a line of cotton equipment but that market wasn't too hot this winter either. “I saw just a little cotton equipment selling, mainly module builders. That's probably because the outlook for cotton is less stable than it is for the major grains.”

(Cotton Inc. issued a report in February that suggested that cotton acreage may decrease to 9 million acres this season from 10.85 million last year.)

Brothers Ralph and Bruce Humble, who farm together near Liberty, N.C., were interested spectators at the Agricraft display at the Southern Farm Show, but they told Southeast Farm Press they were just looking.

“Unless something happens that brings in a lot more money, we are not making any major purchases,” said Ralph. “If the financial situation was better, we would have been interested in a fertilizer spreader (like the one Agricraft was exhibiting), but right now, no.”

Don L. Anderson, a farmer in South Boston, Va., bought a new sprayer earlier this year to get the most accurate spray patterns necessary for his sucker control chemicals.

That has become more important this year because for the first time part of his tobacco crop will be grown for Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company under its Purity Residue Clean (PRC) program. That means he can't use maleic hydrazide (MH), so the alternative sucker control chemicals have to be placed very precisely.

Anderson bought a four-row conventional tractor-mounted sprayer with hydraulically lifted boom.

He had been selling the flue-cured tobacco that he grows almost exclusively to RJ Reynolds.

“There is a price bonus for producing PRC tobacco this year,” said Anderson. “But it is definitely more difficult because you can't use a number of chemicals.”

In February he thought about half his crop would be contracted to Santa Fe.

Like many farmers, Anderson was having trouble getting used to the high prices for grain crops.

“Crops like corn and soybeans are competitive with tobacco for the first time,” he said. “Where a farmer has good land, the returns can be very comparable. Tobacco companies may find it difficult to fill their contracts, as profit margins may be even tighter for the 2008 tobacco crop than they were in 2007.”

But he plans to produce roughly the same amount of tobacco as last year. Anderson is the executive director of the Virginia Tobacco Growers Association.

The commissioner of agriculture of North Carolina attended the Southern Farm Show and noted something of a contradiction.

“You would expect coming out of a drought year like we have had that purchases would be on the downside,” said Steve Troxler. “But with commodity prices up as high as they are, and expectations of profit better, farmers seem to feel confident to make the purchases they need

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