SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — The new year should prove profitable for Georgia peanut and pecan growers, while poultry farmers look like they're in for a tough time in 2012, agriculture experts from the University of Georgia said in their annual farm forecast released Monday.
The 40-page UGA report says another year of abnormally dry weather could mean lower yields for many farmers, and higher prices for seed, fertilizer and other necessities are expected to take a bite out of profits.
"Overall, there's going to be some ups and downs," said Kent Wolfe, director of the UGA Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development. "... A lot of it is going to depend on the weather and what the economy does."
One wild card is whether Georgia's fruit and vegetable growers will be able to hire enough workers to harvest crops such as Vidalia onions, peaches and blackberries that must be picked by hand.
Some farmers reported a labor shortage last year they said resulted in portions of their crops rotting in the fields. They blamed the new Georgia law targeting illegal immigrants, saying it scared away migrant workers. It's unclear whether the law has truly caused a labor shortage, but some growers say they're planting fewer acres of hand-picked crops in 2012.
"If you can't get it out of the field and get it shipped off, it doesn't do you any good," Wolfe said, adding that it's too early in the year to say whether farmers will have enough workers.
Three Georgia row crops that are harvested by machine — peanuts, corn and cotton — are expected to produce some of the better profits, with higher yields and favorable prices overcoming increased costs.
UGA forecasters said healthy peanut prices in 2011 will likely prompt farmers to plant more acres in May. Last year, an increase in peanut consumption met with limited supplies when farmers reduced their acreage to grow more corn and cotton. As a result, peanut prices jumped as high as $1,000 per ton — nearly double what growers were getting in 2010.
Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission, noted that many growers couldn't take advantage of the higher prices because they were locked into contracts promising to sell their crops for less. Still, he said peanut farmers will likely increase their plantings by as much as 100,000 acres — or roughly 21 percent — this year to capitalize on lingering demand.
"Last year we just didn't plant enough peanuts," Koehler said. "I would anticipate we will get back up toward a more normal acreage in Georgia" this year.
Pecans, which shot above $3 per pound last year after selling for about $2.35 a pound in 2010, are expected to keep fetching premium prices. Georgia is the nation's top producer of pecans, which have soared in value because of insatiable demand in China coupled with drought in the southern U.S. limiting supplies.
Meanwhile, producers of Georgia's No. 1 farm commodity are continuing to struggle. Poultry farmers slashed the number of chickens they were growing last year and are expected to continue scaling back production in 2012. That's because limited corn supplies have made chicken feed so expensive that farmers have had trouble selling their poultry at a profit.
Chickens accounted for about 38 percent of the $12 billion worth of farm goods produced in Georgia in 2010. Growers increased production last year and took a hit from both falling prices and the rising cost of feed. Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said this year farmers hope that producing fewer chickens will raise prices back to profitable levels.
"Looking ahead to 2012 we're hopeful that market conditions will improve," Giles said. "But the price of corn isn't likely to come down significantly."
UGA agriculture experts planned to present their forecast findings at seminars across the state this week, starting in Macon on Monday. Seminars were also planned in Tifton, Statesboro, Gainesville and Carrollton.