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Farmers share drought horror stories

September 01, 1999|By DON AINES

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Farmers and businessmen detailed the extent of drought damage to their operations and how state government can help during a hearing Tuesday before the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee.

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"As the days and weeks went by and the rain didn't come, we did get discouraged and, yes, even depressed at times," Stanley Burkholder told a group of 20 Democratic legislators at the state Capitol Building.

Burkholder's family owns Burk-Lea Farms near Scotland, Pa., in Franklin County. He said the heat and drought resulted in lower milk production, drastically lower grain yields and higher production costs.

Normally, the corn harvest would begin this week, but almost all 500 acres of his stunted crop are already in, Burkholder said.

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The result was about 9 tons of silage an acre, compared to 20 tons in a normal year. At $25 a ton, he figured the value of his silage would be down $150,000 this year.

"We dropped 12 to 15 pounds per cow per day" in milk production during a heat wave in early July, Burkholder said later. His farm has 460 dairy cows.

He said a Penn State University study showed that if milk production dropped 2 percent in Pennsylvania, it would cost 570 agriculture-related jobs. He also worried about the effect of the drought and low commodity prices on his five employees.

"We feel responsible for the future income of our employees," Burkholder said.

Knouse Foods Co-op is owned by fruit growers, and five of its seven processing plants are in South Central Pennsylvania, including two in Franklin County. Knouse Chief Executive Officer Ken Guise said the cooperative will have to buy fruit from out of state to meet its processing needs this year.

The company processes about 500 million pounds of fruit a year, worth $200 million, marketed under such brand names such as Musselman's and Lucky Leaf.

Federal crop insurance, which only about 25 percent of the state's farmers have, should be reformed, according to Pennsylvania Farm Bureau Vice President Carl Shaffer.

"It's the stupidest thing ever," the Columbia County farmer said about the program, which insures beans he grows for processing, but not the ones he grows for fresh marketing.

Shaffer told State Rep. Jeff Coy, D-Franklin, he paid about $12,000 in premiums for his 900 acres of corn and beans. He and other farmers at the hearing said state subsidies to help pay insurance premiums would encourage greater participation and lessen the economic impact of droughts and other disasters.

U.S. Rep. Ron Klink, D-4th, said the state should dip into its $734 million budget surplus and $1 billion Rain Day Fund to provide cash assistance and other aid to farmers. He said the federal disaster declaration will provide little help because farmers don't need more low-interest loans.

"When you're starving, who needs to take on more debt? ... The farmers need grants," Klink said.

He criticized Gov. Tom Ridge for not asking President Clinton for a disaster declaration. He said the president has the power to make grants available immediately from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies.

Dr. Robert Steele, the dean of Penn State University's School of Agriculture, said estimates of $500 million in lost farm income are conservative. Production income to the state's 45,000 farmers is usually about $5 billion and the drought has put many in danger of going out of business, he said.

"Next year's potential income has probably been severely lessened" because trees stressed by drought will not develop as many buds, Guise said.

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