05/17/11 — Crops: So far, so good

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Crops: So far, so good

By Steve Herring
Published in News on May 17, 2011 1:46 PM

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A crew transplants watermelons on the farm of Frank Howell off Pikeville-Princeton Road this morning. Farming in Wayne County is in full swing. Growers are hoping for better weather than last year, when heat and a lack of rain led to devastating losses for many.

Moderate temperatures coupled with the right amount of rainfall at the right time have created near-perfect growing conditions for the county's crops. However, Cooperative Extension Service director Kevin Johnson can't forget last year.

"My biggest fear is another hot, dry summer for corn, soybeans, tobacco," Johnson said. "Last year we had a major crop failure in the county -- a devastating failure. We have farmers who are really struggling from last year.

"It was a financial burden for them. They lost their wheat crop. They lost their corn crop. They lost their soybean crop and a lot of them lost their tobacco crop. We do not need to have another year like that. It would just be devastating."

The dollar loss was about $29.4 million, Johnson said.

Corn was especially hard hit last year and acreage that normally would be planted in corn may wind up in soybeans or cotton, especially since worldwide cotton prices are a record level, Johnson said.

Other factors will affect the final corn acreage including the recent rains that kept some farmers out of their fields.

"There is a lot of risk in corn and a lot of our land is marginal corn land anyway," Johnson said. "Cotton intentions are way up and that is one of the reasons corn is going down. It is can be very droughty and cotton likes drought. Cotton likes heat. All of the corn has been planted. We actually had some farmers who didn't get all of their corn planted. They didn't meet their intentions because of the rain.

"We have had some good-timed rains and we had a lot, but it has made it so that farmers could not actually get their corn planted. Usually we start planting corn in late March, early April and here it is the first week in May and I know I have talked to multiple farmers who just didn't get it in because it was so wet, so they are probably going to plant soybeans."

Johnson anticipates about 20,000 acres will be planted in corn, down from the normal 25,000 to 30,000 acres.

Farmers are now in the process of planting cotton, and Johnson expects close to 15,000 acres to be planted, up from 10,000 last year.

"I may be way off," he said. "We may have 20,000. The world supply of cotton is down so prices are at an all-time high. The farmers are probably going to average over a $1 per pound for cotton this year. If you had cotton in a warehouse, which no one does, but if you did you could have sold it for $2 at one time. The dollar was the magic number. To be honest, for the past 10 years we would have been happy just to get 60 or 70 cents, and now it is a dollar.

"That is why intentions (to plant cotton) are up. The problem with cotton is that it requires special equipment that is only good for picking cotton. You know for soybeans you can use the same combine for soybeans, corn, wheat -- one combine can handle it all."

Johnson said he doesn't know how cotton will affect soybean acreage.

"There are a lot of unknowns this year because of high commodities," he said. "I don't know if soybeans are going to take the hit. I know corn is going to take the hit.

"Corn is so risky. It costs a lot to put in the ground and it is risky. If you don't get the rains in that small window when it is pollinating, you are done, whereas soybeans and cotton you have an extended period of time. I don't know what the relationship is going to be between cotton and soybeans, which one is going to take acres from each other."

There also is more risk with cotton than there is with soybeans, he said.

Johnson said he thinks soybean acreage may be off "just a little bit." Farmers normally plant 65,000 acres, and this year it could be range between 60,000 to 65,000, he said.

"We have probably the best wheat crop that I have ever seen," he said. "It started out really bad because the wheat went through that extreme cold. It came up very slowly. We were concerned about the growth early. Then the weather broke, the wheat came up.

"The weather conditions have been perfect and we have been getting the rainfall like we need it. It has been fairly cool. We just have a tremendous wheat crop out there. Things can go wrong of course -- wind, hail, things like that, but if we can take this to yield, I think it will be the best wheat crop that we have ever had."

Final acreage figures are not in, but Johnson expects around 25,000 acres -- about usual for the county.

Harvesting will start around June 1.

"Wheat is actually a little early this year, probably because it got warm early and it really advanced its growth," he said.

Like wheat, the county's tobacco crop, expected to average about 9,000 acres, is off to a strong start as well, Johnson said.

"It grew well in the greenhouse," he said. "The weather has been really good so they didn't have to burn a lot of gas to heat (the greenhouses). It grew off very quickly in the greenhouse. There were not a lot of diseases, so we got healthy transplants going into the field.

"They are finishing up transplanting their tobacco right now. It looks good in the field right now, but we still have a long way to go. We have a good start."

Topping and suckering of the plants will start in late June and July and harvesting in August. Some may start in July, then harvest all the way up to the first frost in November, Johnson said.

"It didn't used to be that way but now it is -- November all the way through until you get done," he said.

Overall, though, he said, things are going well this year. But, he cautioned, "We've got a long way to go."