On-farm optimism hard to come by

YOU'LL NOTICE as you read through this issue that a number of articles are tagged with a logo we have optimistically dubbed "Profit 2001."

Some might argue that a more appropriate moniker could be: "2001, you pay your money and take your chances." Or we could have chosen: "Profit 2001?" Or perhaps: "The top 10 ways to hang onto what you've got while battling drought, insects, low prices and the increasingly burdensome regulations that threaten your existence."

Optimism is hard to come by out on the farm. In fact, I've received a number of letters recently from farmers who have worked hard for decades only to see their equity eroded by the savage combination of low prices, prolonged drought and ill-advised regulations.

Mr. Charles Payne, of Cross Timbers, Texas, copied me a letter he sent to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. In that letter, Mr. Payne explained that his father sold wheat in 1940 for $2.50 to $2.55 a bushel and paid 8 cents for a loaf of bread.

"As I write this letter, wheat is $2.20 per bushel and I saw some bread for sale this morning for $1.25 a loaf," Payne wrote.

I'd like to find his grocery. Bread usually runs closer to $2 a loaf in the Dallas area. But his point is well taken. Crops were cheaper to produce 60 years ago. He says in 1950, a farmer needed 700 bushels of wheat to buy a new pick-up. Now, "8,000 bushels will not replace (a pick-up), nor will 10,000... and I'm not talking about a fancy pick-up."

Mr. George Hudspeth, of Brownfield, Texas, will turn 80 in January, 2001. He has farmed for 65 years, 57 of those in the Southern Plains.

"We in the plains of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico are blessed with land which grows crops and yields oil to sustain the growth of the area," he wrote. "Over the years, the entire state of Texas and the United States has prospered from the resources of our area."

He's concerned, however, that deregulation of utility companies will impose hardships on rural communities, especially the Southern Plains.

"The South Plains of Texas has some of the lowest (utility) rates in the state." Under de-regulation, utilities will be sold and will be controlled by interests outside the South Plains.

"My only hope is that the burden of this ...doesn't send even more South Plains farmers and other businesses right into the Poor Farm!"

And, finally, Mr. Ross Forbus, Poteet, Texas, writes about the changes in the peanut program that reduced the amount of quota peanuts he can produce and, consequently, severely cut his profit potential. He says the change "cut (for me and my wife) $85,000 out of our retirement. The farm was our retirement."

The point is: although the overall economy has been chugging along quite well for the past eight or nine years, a small but important part of the population has been left behind. Farmers like these three are not all that rare. And rural communities that are on the brink of losing their schools and business are much too common.

Profit has been extremely difficult to achieve over the past few years. We've tried in this issue and we'll continue to try throughout the year to identify areas of opportunity. Unfortunately, we haven't discovered a formula to turn every farming operation into a profitable one.

We remain optimistic, however, that agriculture and farmers like Mr. Payne, Mr. Forbus and Mr. Hudspeth will continue to struggle against the odds and manage to eke out a profit. And we'll provide information to help them do that.

But we also recognize a need for legislative changes and more attentive ears in state houses and in Washington. Chances are good that Freedom to Farm will be revised, possibly as early as 2001. That would be a good place to start saving our rural economies and a good first step toward bringing profitability back to agriculture.

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