Farmers this spring are caught between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea, with their backs against the wall, and on the horns of a dilemma as they decide how in tarnation they'll ever figure out how to turn a profit with commodity prices at historic lows.

The options include the usual suspects: cut costs, improve yields, change crops, alter cropping practices or try some new potion touted as a can't-miss way to boost production. In some cases, says Texas Extension agronomist Calvin Trostle, decisions may issue from the local lender.

“The farm bill, when it's passed, will drive crop decisions,” Trostle said during the recent Southwest Crops Production Conference and Expo in Lubbock. “But the lending office may influence, even dictate, agronomic practices, inputs, insect control remedies and other decisions affecting the crop.

“In some cases, the lender may insist on reducing inputs even though the cut means a farmer will not be able to produce the crop correctly.”

Cutting back may be a double-edged plow point Trostle said, depending on the crop and resources.

Peanuts, alfalfa and sunflowers, for instance, suffer more from reduced input than a farmer will save. With wheat for grazing and grain, cutting back on irrigated acreage results in a false economy but farmers may justify cuts in dryland production, Trostle says.

“Reducing inputs for irrigated sorghum, wheat for grain, sorghum-Sudan and millet may work to a farmer's benefit.” And cutting back on inputs for those crops in dryland conditions is a good idea, he said. Guar also may do well enough with reduced costs.

“Some farmers in the Southern Plains are making money on these crops, but their management is proactive,” Trostle said.

He cautioned farmers against “sweeping changes in cropping systems for 2002, such as eliminating cotton from the enterprise mix. Some farmers cut out cotton last year and I expect some of those may, and should, plan to bring at least some cotton back on rotated ground.”

Minimum tillage will be “a needed step for many producers,” Trostle said, “although the potential for increased herbicide expense may prevent some farmers from adopting the practice.”

Residue crops such as sorghum and wheat afford more options for min-till.

Trostle said some farmers still make unwise purchases trying out unproven products such as soil additives and inoculants (for non-legume crops), wonder growth regulators and stimulators, special micro-nutrient mixes and other “special concoctions. It's almost like buying lottery tickets.

“For the cost of an unproven product, how much water could you apply?”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com