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Cotton-to-grain shift ups Delta storage issue

GREENWOOD, Mississippi -- In the 1800s, farmers in the state of Mississippi grew roughly 4.0 million acres of cotton. In the 1990s, Mississippi seeded 1.18 million acres of their staple crop.

With the loss of the textile industry to China and other countries, and the drop in cotton prices, Mississippi farmers have had to look for another crop. Enter corn, soybeans, wheat and rice. But, mainly Delta farmers have turned to soybeans and corn.

With this sea change in production, the Delta landscape has changed. Where you once saw thriving cotton gins sprawled throughout the countryside, now shiny cylinder-shaped grain bins prevail.

In just three years, Mississippi has gone from producing very little corn to an expected 780,000 acres in 2009.

Though this Delta state remains corn deficient, with the area chicken industry consuming most of the grain, new challenges have cropped up.

All of this corn has created an infrastructure problem, as local elevators are unable to provide sufficient storage. As a result, the one-time cotton turned corn farmer needs on-farm grain storage.

As many Midwest grain farmers have learned, putting up a grain bin system can be expensive. Plus, some years you make money off the storage and some you don't. This new cost of production has some Mississippi farmers concerned.

As one Thornton, Mississippi, farmer quipped, "U.S. General George Patton once said, fixed fortifications are the monuments to the stupidity of man."

"I'm a cotton farmer growing corn," the Mississippi farmer says, whom asked to remain anonymous. "If corn prices go back to $2.50 per bushel, I’m switching back to cotton right away. And then I'm stuck with these grain bins."

To get around the problem of sinking $500,000 into a grain bin system, some farmers are turning to a temporary 'bag storage' system.

The average-sized bag can store roughly 10,500 bushels of grain. Each bag costs 8 cents/bushel. Though the manufacturer states that 18 months is the maximum length of grain storage, most farmers only store for a period of 6-7 months.

Meanwhile, Mike Thompson, farms down the road in Thornton. However, Thompson and his father have gone to the other extreme erecting a half a million bushels of grain storage.

"As we turned our nearly all cotton farm into a grain operation, the first thing was we went out and put up the bins, about 230,000 bushels, enough to store our corn off the home place," Thompson says.

Thompson adds, "We never thought, at first, we'd be all corn. When the price shot up, we were all corn with 230,000 bushels of storage. We knew we had to take advantage of the market and store on the farm."

The Thompsons then built a ring bin for another 85,000 bushels of storage. "This year, we added 200,000 bushels storage in the shed, flat storage," Mike says. "The idea behind that flat storage, if we did move to another crop, we would still have enough shed space for a new shop and a place to park our equipment in the future. It would potentially serve another purpose."

George Cunningham, farms over 5,000 acres of soybeans, cotton, rice, and corn near Tchula, Mississippi. Cunningham agrees the bins are a must.

Because his local elevator isn't equipped to handle the area's production, Cunningham built two grain bin systems two years ago.

"The bins have worked tremendously," Cunningham says. "I don't really use them for storage, I use them to keep combines going during harvest. I'm constantly hauling out of them. During harvest, instead of me waiting for a truck to return from town, I can go to the bins."

Cunningham is finding he can use his grain storage as a marketing tool. "I market everything except for what I’m going to store," Cunningham says. I'll market the stored grain after harvest. But, I normally have everything else booked."

GREENWOOD, Mississippi -- In the 1800s, farmers in the state of Mississippi grew roughly 4.0 million acres of cotton. In the 1990s, Mississippi seeded 1.18 million acres of their staple crop.

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