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Farmers confront extreme challenges

July 29, 2000

Farmers confront extreme challenges



By JOSH POLTILOVE / Staff Writer


There was a drought last year. There is seemingly nonstop rainfall this year. No matter what the weather conditions, serious challenges remain for Washington County farmers to overcome.

While precipitation has increased this year, this much rain is not always good, said Don Schwartz, Washington County extension agent for the Maryland Cooperative Extension Agency.

"There are good growing conditions, but the rain makes the harvest hard and makes more bugs, more diseases and more cost to treat the diseases," Schwartz said.

Despite these obstacles, Kyle Flook, farm manager at the 3,500-acre Paradise Farms in Hagerstown, said the weather turnaround from a year ago has dramatically improved his farm's crop conditions.

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Last year, his farm's corn was short, burnt and brown. This year, the corn is tall and green, and most stalks have two ears. The crop ranges from 10 to 14 feet tall, several feet higher than last year.

"Last year we couldn't get a rain shower. This year's just amazing - we can't even get the sun to shine," Flook said. "When you see last year and you see this year, it's hard to believe how much water can make the difference."

Weather observer Greg Keefer's Web site reported that there has been 15.73 inches of rainfall in May, June and July this year, compared to 6.21 inches in the same three months last year.

Still, Flook fears Paradise Farms will not make any money this year, either. He said the prices for corn and soybeans are so low, the farm probably will barely break even.

A couple of years ago, corn was sold for $2.50 or $3 a bushel and beans were $6 or $7, Flook said. This year, corn sells for $1.80 and soy costs $4, he adds.

He said this is because the Midwest is having a bumper crop this year and supply everywhere is greater than demand.

"Another problem is that rain makes it harder to get off summer crops like barley and wheat, and that's putting us behind," he said. "It just seems like it's raining every day now. Last year, you could have an 80 percent chance of rain and get nothing. This year, they don't even have to call for rain and we get it."

In addition to the added rain this summer, a temperature change also affects crop conditions. Keefer's site shows there has never been a July without a 90-degree day - until this summer. None are projected in the latest forecast, and the highest temperature so far, 89, came July 10.

This is a sharp contrast from last July, which had 23 days of 90 degrees or higher, Keefer's site indicates.

Richard Dittman, a statistician at the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service in Annapolis, said estimates on soybean and corn yields will not be out Aug. 11, but as a result of the cooler, wetter conditions, they will be much higher than last year.

"As far as crop conditions last year, for the corn and sorghum, about 70 percent of crop was fair or worse," he said. "This year, 90 percent plus is good to excellent. The soybeans weren't as bad off last year as the corn, since about half were good to excellent. But this year, about 80-85 percent is good or excellent."

Still, he said with prices remaining low for milk products, the loss of dairy farmers remains a major concern. In 1993, there were 1,089 Grade A dairies in Maryland, Dittman notes. By 1999, there were only 834.

"There were a lot of people last year that did decide to get out of farming, especially the older guys. They were really worried about it," he said. "The improved weather should help increase production, but the milk prices have remained really bad."

While the extreme seasons present challenges for farmers, Schwartz said what is important is how they deal with the struggles.

"That's what keeps folks in agriculture - the lifestyle, not the money," Schwartz said. "There is always next year."

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