Keeping Cotton In The Mix

By John Lindamood
Tiptonville, Tenn.

We have all heard it and probably said it ourselves. “In all my years of farming, I have never seen such strange weather!” And though it will be said again in the future, it certainly describes this year to a tee. A similar comment could be made for commodity prices. We have seen wide ranges in most 2013 contract prices, with corn lows at $4.01 and highs near $7, cotton trading from 70 cents to $1.06, soybeans from $9.25 to $14.07 and wheat at $6.35 to $9.13. These extremes have made for great opportunities in marketing and real challenges in production.

As I write this article, I am trying to think of strategies to deal with the extremes we face year after year in farming. Wide trading rang-es in commodity prices make crop mixes that were profitable one year ago money losers the next year.

Meanwhile, weather extremes range from droughts to floods – sometimes within the same year. It makes it tempting at times to think about shifting our production out of one crop and all into another. Or to alter our investment in harvesting capacity or even ridding ourselves of the useless pickers or combines we were so proud of only a year ago.

The problem is that we often forget why we diversified in the first place. It may have been simple economics, the price of corn exceeding cotton or as it may be next year the other way around. It could have been the reliability of yields we experience with one crop over the other. In my case, that would be cotton, with extremely reliable yields year after year.

The point is that we had good solid reasons to diversify our crop mix in the first place, and all those reasons don’t go away just because commodity prices collapse for a period of time in one crop or another. And last year’s weather extremes will not likely be the weather we will have next year. I have heard more than one farmer in the past year say, “I’m not going to grow cotton next year, know anybody that wants to buy a picker?” And yet here we are with corn prices below $4.50 and cotton near 80 cents. Or we might hear that they will never raise corn again after the drought and disastrous 2012 corn crop, only to have some of our best corn yields ever in 2013.

That brings me to the point of this article. One of the best strategies we can employ is to stay diversified – in our crop mix, makeup of our harvest and planting equipment, use of crop protection products, marketing strategies, and, in fact, the very way we plan for the next year’s crop.

I have been farming cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans for 30 years. And even though we seldom have a grand slam with all four crops, we also seldom strike out in all four either.

We can and need to change our crop mix in response to market changes and past experiences. However, by maintaining diversity in our crop mix, investment harvesting equipment and approach to marketing, we maintain the flexibility we need to meet the ever changing environment in which we farm. We should always keep in mind a simple truth, “it is never wise to put all your eggs in one basket!” We could also add, “never put all your faith in one crop.”

This may be a difficult lesson to remember as I am only now beginning the latest start to a cotton harvest that we have ever had, at least in northwest Tennessee. And as I weigh competing commodity prices for 2014 and try to shake off the memory of a cold, wet planting season followed by a cold, wet summer, I will try and remember what my father often says when asked about raising cotton for another year. “You best not forget who brung you to the dance.”

For me, that was cotton. It will never again be our only crop, but it will be part of a diversified mix in the years to come.

– John Lindamood, Tiptonville, Tenn.

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