Crop yields strong despite wild weather

LEETOWN — Despite a fairly average growing season, this year will likely prove to be an excellent one for area crop farmers as a result of an extreme and persistent drought in the Midwest that has sent corn and soy prices skyrocketing.

The good times are not being felt by all however; beef and dairy farmers have had a very difficult year. which began with setbacks because of unusual weather patterns, said area corn, soy and wheat farmer Lyle Tabb.

“Early on in the season it was dry and cool, and that meant a lot of people planted late,” Tabb said. “The average planting date was at least 10 days behind.”

Local Farmer Lyle Tabb shows off his corn fields. Despite some adverse conditions early in the year, corn growers are expecting high profits this year, a result of record droughts in the Midwest.

Later that spring, the weather turned cool and wet, presenting its own problems.

“Myself and a lot of other farmers had a lot of problems with slugs,” Tabb said, noting these hurt the corn crop to some degree but had a much more harmful effect on the soy crop. Some farmers, he said, had to replant up to 60 percent of their soy fields as a result of slug damage.

“With replanting you never get back that potential that you originally had,” he said.

The situation was made worse when the record-breaking heat wave struck in early summer.

“The super-hot weather we had there in the first part of June and July really affected the pollination of corn,” Tabb said. This incomplete pollination led corn cobs to develop incompletely. “We’re about 15 to 20 percent down on the yield per plant.”

It’s not atypical to face adverse conditions in most years, however, and Tabb expects the total corn crop to be average or slightly better and the total soy crop to be average.

The major difference this year: the price that producers will get when they take their crop to market. Corn prices have gone up almost 50 percent in the last three months, soy more than 40 percent in the last year.

Prices for both hit all-time highs in August, and, though they have dipped slightly, farmers this year will likely get the highest price they have ever gotten for their products, according to Alvin Martin, owner of Hagerstown-based Martin Elevator, a major buyer of corn and soy in the local market.

“That’s driving the prices up, which is good for the farmers here who have the crops to sell,” said Bob Gruber, a local farmer and president of the Jefferson County Fair board of directors. “There is a deficit of grain supplies in this country. Its just supply and demand.”

“We’ve been very blessed here in Jefferson County over the past year,” Gruber said. “You don’t have to travel very far out of this county to find drought conditions.”

Tabb said he expects to sell corn at a 30 percent higher price than he did last year, soy 35 percent higher.

Tabb said this will be a year for row-crop farmers to make up ground they lost during two recent years of hardship: 2007 and 2010. Both were bad drought years, and 2010, on top of being the worst year on record, was a year in which brown marmorated stinkbugs ravaged the local harvest.

Stinkbugs have mostly been held at bay this year, with help from the local USDA office, he said.

Not everyone in the agricultural community will benefit from the crop prices, however. The county’s dairy and beef cattle farmers are being hit hard by the high cost of feed. So far milk and beef have not undergone the massive price inflation seen in row crops, meaning that they will have to deal with flat revenue and higher costs.

Gruber, who runs a dairy operation himself, said many dairies are currently operating at a loss.

“Dairy has taken a hit this year,” he said. “Dairy prices have not followed the commodity market. Its costing us more to produce milk right now than we are receiving for it. Some farmers have talked about going out of business, selling the animals and the grain while the prices are high.”

Martin agreed, adding that high input costs are harming beef cattle farmers throughout the region in the same way.

“Its really going to be bad because (beef farmers) are paying for this high-dollar grain that they can’t afford. You just can’t cash flow a beef operation with these kind of prices,” he said. “Over the last five years it was a fairly normal pricing structure, but this year it is completely out of proportion. With these kind of prices you can’t get off first base.”

There may be light at the end of the tunnel for local livestock raisers, however, according to Gruber and Martin.

As drought conditions in the Midwest and Texas have steadily worsened, many ranchers are beginning to sell off their herds, including their breeding stock. Even after weather conditions normalize, it will take time for ranchers in that region to replenish their herds, meaning that beef prices are likely to rise in coming years.

“The man that can survive these economic prices will be OK a few years down the road, as long as crops start to come in,” Martin said.

The 2012 drought also will eventually be felt by consumers, who will see increased food prices as the relative scarcity of foodstuffs make them more expensive.

“Meat prices are going to go through the roof for the consumer in a year or two,” Martin said.

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