Skip to comments.Battered cotton farmers weigh whether to bail out
Posted on 11/14/2004 2:59:11 AM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
Montezuma -- At this time of year, like every fall before, Frank Journey Jr. expects to reap the fruits of his labor, sweat and love.
The sowing of cotton seeds each March heralds the start of another planting season. It's an annual rite of spring that transforms the 63-acre Journey family farm into lush summer pastures of green.
Summer, of course, gives way to the fall harvest, when Journey, like his father and grandfather before him, collects the white tufts of cotton that blanket the fields.
It's a well-worn tradition observed by generations of cotton farmers in Montezuma and surrounding Macon County.
But Mother Nature doesn't respect tradition.
Hurricanes Frances, Ivan and Jeanne pummeled Middle Georgia with rain and punishing winds.
So what should have been thigh-high stalks of cotton plants only grew calf-high, dashing any hope of repeating last year's success.
"Last year was the best cotton crop I've had since the mid-1980s," the 50-year-old Journey said as he walked his fields on a recent Sunday.
"I won't make as much as I did last year," said Journey, who was among cotton farmers nationwide who benefited from China's growing less cotton than apparel makers demanded.
But that was last year. Farming doesn't come with guarantees.
"Farming is risky," Journey said.
Left to recover from a 50 percent loss of this year's crop, Frank's sister, LeVonda Journey Bush, wonders if this latest in a long string of challenges growing cotton isn't a signal to break with tradition and grow something else.
It's one of the choices Frank, LeVonda, 38, and their brother, Curtis, 47, will have to make in the coming months now that their mother, Thelma Brown Journey, has decided to retire.
Thelma Journey, 71, is leaving the farm and its future to the hands and imagination of her children.
Her only desire: that her children, the third farming generation of Journeys and Browns, hold onto the land she and her late husband purchased in 1963 and keep the farm tradition alive.
"Tradition is what our family was built on," said LeVonda Bush.
"Tradition is very important, but it's just time for a change."
LeVonda Bush is perhaps the most ambitious of her siblings in what to do about the farm.
She envisions growing organic vegetables like collard greens, peas, turnips and corn to sell at a vacant storefront she owns near downtown Montezuma.
The idea, she said, is to capitalize on consumer demand for fresh, pesticide-free foods.
And in rural enclaves like Montezuma, 120 miles south of downtown Atlanta, grocery options are few.
Having a fresh-food pantry that would sell vegetables at near-wholesale prices would give potential customers an alternative to the handful of chain grocers sprinkled across the county, LeVonda Bush said.
She'd also like the family to consider tourism ideas such as building cabins or using the property as a site for paintball war games.
"There comes a point where you want to live a happy life," she said. "Cotton is not going to do that. Cash-crop farming is not going to do that."
Increasingly, farmers who grow cash crops like cotton, or those who produce other commodity products like milk, have reached the same conclusion.
Many farmers with small operations like the Journeys say they're being squeezed by rising costs on one side and stagnant or falling crop prices on the other.
Because they produce so much more cotton, large-scale corporate farms can more easily absorb the higher costs of seeds, fuel and machinery.
All farmers, big and small, have to contend with China, India and other countries that have emerged as global powerhouses in cotton production, said LaRhea Pepper, who grows organic cotton on an 1,800-acre farm in western Texas.
She and other Texas farmers gave up conventional cotton because they couldn't compete with overseas growers. They formed the Texas Organic Marketing Cooperative in the early 1990s to push organically grown cotton.
The trend has caught on with apparel makers like Nike and Patagonia, which buy organic cotton to woo customers who want their clothes like their food to come from naturally grown plants.
As a fifth-generation Texas cotton farmer, Pepper said she understood the strong draw of tradition for families like the Journeys.
"It's an emotional investment, it's a time investment, and they have a choice to make," Pepper said. But the realities of modern farming don't allow much time to decide, she said.
"When you lay out all the numbers before you, it's really not a choice at all," Pepper said. "You either change or not."
Increased global production has depressed cotton prices for farmers nationwide, including in Georgia, the third-ranking cotton-producing state behind Texas and Mississippi.
Georgia farmers received about 73 cents a pound in 1994 for cotton. Last year, they got 61 cents per pound, a 16 percent drop even without factoring in inflation.
Put another way, a cotton farmer who sold 100,000 pounds of cotton in 1994 would have earned $73,000 then but only $61,000 last year.
Meanwhile, costs for diesel fuel, a major farm expense, averaged $1.02 per gallon last year, compared with 66 cents per gallon in 1994, U.S. Department of Energy figures show. That's a 57 percent jump before inflation.
Yet even with those sobering numbers, Frank Journey, who is the most active sibling in managing the farm's day-to-day operations, says cotton is less risky than newer ventures such as organic farming.
LeVonda Bush, who spent the past four years looking at crop alternatives, estimates it would cost between $500,000 and $1 million to convert the farm to organic or agri-tourism uses, including purchasing equipment and marketing the non-cotton offerings.
Frank Journey also looked into raising other crops. But he said the cost of putting farming on hold for two years while converting to other crops, combined with taking out a bank loan, is too big a gamble.
"It's just not worth the risk," he said. "There's a lot more risk in food crops than there is in cotton farming."
He rattled off a list of concerns: Problems with pests such as insects and rodents would increase with food crops, especially without pesticides. Drought could be more devastating to food crops, as could an overabundance of rain like the Journeys had this year.
None of that, Frank Journey said, is as much of an issue with cotton, which adds $619 million to Georgia's economy each year.
"You have to be careful in food crops," Frank Journey said. "You don't have a lot of margin for too many mistakes in food crops."
The tug-of-war tale within a family that pits the comfort of old farming traditions against the fear of uncharted territory is a familiar one in the South, agronomists say.
The drama has been enhanced by the maelstrom of global changes affecting the family farm.
Farmers already contend with Mother Nature, overseas production, competition from corporate farms and the loss of bargaining power with multinational food companies. To ask a farmer to give up the crop he knows on top of that can seem like too much, said Mark Latimore Jr., an agronomy extension specialist and plant science professor at Fort Valley State University southwest of Macon.
"When you look at farming, you have to look at tradition," Latimore said. "It may not [generate] cash flow, but it's very difficult to convince a grower to stop growing peanuts or cotton when they say, 'It's something my father did and my grandfather did.' "
Latimore is working with 56 farmers in Middle and South Georgia and helping them devise plans to grow alternative crops and identify and capitalize on emerging market demands.
"You have to work with the grower a long time, where you gain their trust in getting them to consider growing something else," he said. "It doesn't happen overnight."
Change also requires farmers, particularly small operators looking to move away from cash crops, to increase their marketing skills.
"The real barrier is marketing," said Christy Cassady, coordinator of the New Crops Opportunities Center at the University of Kentucky's College of Agriculture. "It's not just that they don't know how to do it; it's that they've just never been interested in it."
Kentucky tobacco farmers have had to adjust to the falling demand for their crop and figure out alternatives, she said. Some have gone to growing bell peppers and cantaloupes or establishing nurseries to grow ornamental plants for homes and gardens.
Others have formed farming cooperatives. That way, they can pool resources, increase their purchasing and bargaining power, and do collective marketing.
But that's only half of the solution to surviving the off-farm changes, she said.
"You have to have a grower who's willing and able to talk to a manager and show that they have a good product and that they'll be able to produce the volume that that manager needs," Cassady said.
"You have to have that market in place. It doesn't do you any good to grow a great crop if there isn't anyone to buy it."
Frank Journey says he knows he can make a decent living with cotton and admits he knows that eventually the family may have to try a different strategy.
Pointing to the plants he's raised from seedlings perched on the ledge of a picture window at the front of his farmhouse, he said a nursery might be the solution.
His living room and sunroom are accented with a ficus, an orange tree and a lemon tree. Outside, in his yard, Journey's green thumb has nurtured a pecan tree, a plum tree and a grapevine. There's a patch of garlic growing alongside his house.
"I believe I could get into that," he said, explaining that the only major crop alternative he sees to cotton is soybeans. He's also considered growing houseplants or peach and pecan saplings to sell to nurseries.
"But we would have to try it on a small scale," he said, explaining that he probably wouldn't go beyond 5 acres of his 63-acre farm if he decided to try something new.
"We have to make sure we can find a market for it."
Other family farmers say making a change from the familiar to the unknown is scary, but not changing at all will lead to certain death.
"I wouldn't be in business, that's the bottom line," said David Wright, owner of Wright's Dairy, a 200-acre farm in Alexandria, Ala., north of Anniston.
"We used to be a commercial dairy where we had 240 cows, but over the years, it just wasn't profitable," Wright, 54, said of the farm his father started in 1947.
"It made sense to cut back and add value to the product."
So in 1989, he and his wife decided to trim their herd to 85 cows, raise them hormone-, pesticide- and herbicide-free, and bottle 1,600 gallons of milk on-site each week to sell to local restaurants and stores.
The Wrights also make and sell 30 flavors of their own branded ice cream including "Nanner Puddin' " (banana), "All American Apple Pie," grape and, of course, "Georgia Peach."
They've also opened a dairy store on their farm and host tours for children during the school year.
"You can't live with 1970 prices on a commodity and expect to make any money," Wright said, explaining that the changes have tripled farm profits and allowed him to hire four part-time workers in addition to four full-timers.
"It's a new farm economy out there," Wright said. "It's a niche market. It's made a difference for us."
LeVonda Bush points to such success stories when telling her brothers that they, too, can find a path away from cotton.
"I have traditional ways, but I accept new ways," she said. "I'm not afraid to fail. I'm not afraid to fail because all I can do is get back up and try again."
Where there's a will there's a way in a free country.
Some day these sons of Georgia will grow up and say, "I never picked cotton" or "I never milked a cow." So many more Americans have done neither of these things, than those who have within this lifetime, that these arts will fall into the category of threshing barley, or spinning wool into yarn. Quaint rural rituals, preserved only in a museum setting, with period clothing to match.
I have done both. With the aid of machinery. And it was almost the expression of old and quaint custom then.
Planting is something that seems to pull on people - many of us fill that need through gardening.
Making a living through farming must be a labor of love, sweat and tears.
Since we sold our dairy cows last year, we can relate to what these folks are trying to do. Our yuppie neighbors were a little frosted that teh picturesque cows are gone, but, life goes on. (We don't tell them it's too bad they switched from slide-rule to calculater ;-))I think these families are on the right track but instead of going cold turkey and putting the whole farm into veggies or greenhouse crops (63 acres of produce would almost be too much)they should try a something new a little bit at a time. Diversifying is good, especially things that dovetail together. We started raising beef cattle and selling them as "freezer beef" years ago, and now have more beef cattle and added chickens. We're still trying to find our niche. Wish us luck!
63 acre farm? Thats now considered a country estate by todays standards. To make a living cropping you have to think a little bigger than that- nothing less than 1200 acres. Combines don't even get warmed up on 63 acres.
What?? We call that a FRONT YARD in Texas.
What a big whiny. Tradition should have taught him to save that huge profit last year knowing the year following a success is usually a failure.
Wife's relatives farm but gave up livestock, and now do corn and beans, bean and corn, in Iowa. They can store their entire 1,000 acres of grain on the farm and sell only what the must when prices are down, then sell out when the market moves up. The rest of the time, they play.
More likely, the profits from the prior years record crop were used to pay back bank loans that were incurred in years when the crops or the price of cotton were not quite enought to carry the farm over to the next year.
If you raise corn and have a bumper year the price goes down because there is too much of it on the market, If you have a crappy year the price is up , but you have nothing to sell.
When you see the perk holes in the fields around here you know another farmer has given it up, and is selling out to the urbanites. Damn shame .
Texas does everything BIGGER!
My dad, now deceased, picked cotton in his youth and warned me not to do the same if I did not have to. I tried to heed that advice but yet there is undoubtedly something fascinating about the plant Gossypium hirsutum.
I met a woman who said her cotton allergies pop up as soon as a West Texas wind moves east.
I hope the rain eases up real soon.
It was very odd wording - a bit of a spin you might say.
It's a shame to have a good cotton crop in the field with the (cotton) strippers setting on the turning row and having to set in the house and watch it rain. Oh well, maybe tomorrow will bring sun.
I'm seeing some of the best cotton I've seen out here in thirty years. I just hope even a portion of it gets to the compresses. I think the weather is calling for clearing by Wednesday.
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