Originally created 12/06/01

Crops please farmers but prices disappoint



JEKYLL ISLAND, Ga. - It has been a good year for crops but a bad year for the people who grow them, said farmers attending this week's Georgia Farm Bureau's 63rd annual convention.

Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin whispered conspiratorially when he spoke outside the meeting hall about the current state of farming.

"We've never had it so good," Mr. Irvin said.

At least, on the production side. Prices are another matter, Mr. Irvin said.

Farmers enjoyed the largest cotton yield, 3,350 pounds an acre, since 1984, when farmers produced 3,375 pounds an acre, he said. And peanut farmers also enjoyed good production, he said.

The bad news is that prices are bad, but Mr. Irvin said he hopes to offset that with a $3.2 million promotions budget that will help sell some of Georgia's crops in state.

"If we can get commodity prices improved and have back-to-back good production years, we'll be all right," Mr. Irvin said.

Mr. Irvin is also promoting the opening of Cuba to American farm goods just as he did when he urged the selling of U.S. grain to the former Soviet Union.

"We're selling a lot of chicken quarters to them (the Russians) now," he said.

If America lifts its embargo, tourists will flock to Cuba and Georgia farmers will benefit, Mr. Irvin said.

"We want to sell them food" and turf for the 150 golf courses economists say will be needed, Mr. Irvin said.

Cuba and promotional funding aside, many farmers are looking to Washington for answers on the state's cash crops, tobacco, cotton and peanuts.

Some proposals call for removing the quota systems from tobacco and peanuts, and farmers say that's fine so long as there are buyouts such as the $8 a pound being discussed for tobacco.

Fred Wethington, of Lowndes County, said he would sell his quota at that price.

"We farmers are ready for it," said Mr. Wethington, who sold about a million pounds of tobacco this year. He owns half that quota and leases the remainder.

Both Mr. Wethington and Brooks County grower Larry Lodge said they are concerned about what comes next. There is talk of a licensing law in which current growers would be issued a nontransferable license to grow tobacco.

"One bill says you'd have to pay $2 a pound for the license," Mr. Wethington said.

He said he is hopeful that tobacco can remain a viable crop in the United States.

"People are going to smoke. The question is, is it going to be American tobacco or just Brazilian, Argentine or Zimbabwe tobacco?" he said.

Foreign competition is also the problem with cotton prices, said Ricky Seaton, the executive director of the Georgia Cotton Commission.

Farmers need legislation that would provide a government bailout if the prices drop too low, he said. Many of the farmers who attended the convention turned into avid consumers, accepting handouts of snuff, tobacco, peanuts, ice cream and grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Many were dressed comfortably enough but others, especially officers and voting delegates, wore coats and ties.

Banks County farmer Jerry Gordon looked the part of his profession, however, in a Western hat, jeans and boots.

"How many farmers do you see climb off a tractor in a suit and tie?" he asked.

"People are going to smoke. The question is, is it going to be American tobacco or just Brazilian, Argentine or Zimbabwe tobacco?"

- Fred Wethington, of Lowndes County, on hopes that tobacco will remain a viable U.S. crop,