If Myrl Mitchell weren't a farmer and a cotton ginner, he'd make a pretty good philosopher. Even with tough times, he manages to put things in their proper order.

“We see floods and fires and other calamities,” he says, “and as long as we remain healthy, we won't cry about drought. We'll just put it in perspective. As long as we're healthy, we can work at overcoming adversity.”

His community has seen a lot of adversity over the past decade. Mitchell farms and gins in West Texas, about a half-hour's dusty ride south of Lamesa, in an area that depends on cotton for much of its economic well-being.

“We have three basic crops in this area,” Mitchell says, “cotton, cotton and more cotton. That's the only dryland option we have in West Texas.”

And dryland is an apt description. “Drought has been devastating to this area,” he says. “The 1997 and 1999 crops were the last good ones we made. Drought hurts more than just farmers. It takes a heavy toll on rural communities. I've heard that a cotton dollar turns over seven times after it leaves the farmer. But for the last few years farmers have had little opportunity to move money through their communities.

“If the economy doesn't start with the producer, others don't get a chance to handle the dollar,” Mitchell says. “Nothing else can replace that producer-dollar in rural communities. If the farmer doesn't make it, he doesn't pass it along to implement dealers, drygoods stores, or automobile salesmen. The folks who sell gasoline, seed, fertilizer and other products get hurt, too.”

Mitchell sees a lot of empty buildings in the communities he gins and farms. “When agriculture declines there is nothing left in rural areas,” he says.

He sees the problem from two perspectives: farmer and ginner.

“Our gin load has been way down the past two years,” he says. “There used to be two gins, side by side here, and between the two, we ginned more than 30,000 bales a year. Now, only one remains, and last year we ginned 9,000 bales. We should run 15,000.”

He says a big crop, when it comes, will create a backlog at the gin. “I'd really like to see it.”

Mitchell retains a bit of optimism. For one thing, the 2002 crop holds promise.

“Even though most of the cotton is dryland, some of it will make a really good crop. Timely rains helped, especially in the north part of the area. I just wonder when rain will hit all of the West Texas cotton crop.”

Mitchell also expects the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 to help keep farmers solvent.

“We still need to produce a crop,” he said, “but this legislation is better than what we had. The FAIR Act was based on production and without government supports and disaster payments we would not be in business today.”

He says provisions in the 2002 program will “keep us marginally in business” until crop prospects improve.”

He's appreciative of the support farmers got from Texas legislators. “We are indebted to Congressmen Charlie Stenholm and Larry Combest. A lot of entities wanted to gut the farm bill, but they held on.

“This legislation will make a difference in rural communities,” Mitchell says. “I'm confident that this program will work for us and put money back into the rural economy.”

Mitchell says farmers in West Texas used to “rarely miss a crop. We would at least make a half crop and could pay our bills with that.”

Recent downturns in cotton prices, increases in production costs and droughts more years than not have made profits elusive.

“It just costs so much to farm now,” he says. “It's even hard to come out with a good yield. I remember in 1973 we made a good crop, got a good price and production costs were reasonable. Farmers had plenty of money that year.

“Now, even our bankers are feeling the pinch. The Federal government is looking over their shoulders so they can't go with a farmer too long without being paid. Most ag bankers do all they can, but they are limited on how far they can go.”

Mitchell hopes to see rural economies flourish again in West Texas and hopes the combination of a good crop, better prices and a reasonable safety net from the farm legislation is enough to make that happen. He'd like to see a backlog at the gin and some of these empty buildings filled with goods and activities.

It could happen.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com