Net income expected to be off 35 percent

DISMAL YEAR ON THE FARM

November 28, 1991|By Ted Shelsby

As farmers across the state park their tractors and look back on the growing season just ended, one can find something to be thankful for.

John Rinehart, who grows apples at a 300-acre orchard just outside of Smithsburg, a crossroads of Washington County, is probably thankful he doesn't milk cows for a living.

While Mr. Rinehart has harvested his best crop of Red Delicious, Staymans and Red Yorks in years, dairy farmers in the state have been hurt by the extremely hot and dry spring.

"It's been a good year," the apple grower said. "We had a nice crop, and prices were very nice. Business is good."

Mr. Rinehart said he harvested about 120,000 bushels of apples this year, compared to about 40,000 bushel last year, when the fruit was nipped in the bud by a spring frost.

Apples, along with peaches and tobacco, were the bright spots in an otherwise dismal year for Maryland's farms, according to the state Department of Agriculture. It estimates that once the final shipment of chickens have made their way to the supermarkets and the last truckload of corn has been contracted for, net farm income is going to be off 35 percent this year.

Farmers are not the only ones feeling the financial pinch this year. The Agriculture Department is victim of the state's budget crisis and, as a result, is preparing to raise prices for many services it provides to farmers and the agribusiness.

Congress had its own Thanksgiving gift to farmers yesterday when it passed and sent on to the president a $1.75 billion emergency supplemental appropriation measure designed to make disaster payments to farmers who crops were severely damaged by this year's drought.

James C. Richardson is head of the Maryland Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, which administers all federal programs in the state. He said the bill will make payments available to farms that can show a 40 percent loss of crops.

While he was not certain how much of this money will be coming to Maryland, Mr. Richardson noted that after the drought of 1989, state farmers received "a little more than $10 million" in federal payments.

The drought was the major culprit in the financial woes of farmers this year, but it was not the only factor. A lack of rain in the early growing season resulted in an estimated $70 million loss of corn, soybeans and hay. A 10-year low in the price dairy farmers receive for their milk and a drop in prices for broilers, by far the state's largest agriculture industry, added to the problems.

In its final estimate of how well major crops did this year, the Agriculture Department noted that the corn and soybean harvest bounced back slightly from the beating they took during the hot and dry spring.

The state revised its estimate of average yield of corn per acre to 85bushels, up from an earlier estimate of 77 bushels an acre. "Corn did a little better than expected," M. Bruce West of the Agriculture Statistics Service said. "It looks as if farmers were a bit more pessimistic than they should have been."

The 85-bushel yield is still down 28 percent from last season's 118 bushels.

The latest estimate on soybean yields is 31 bushels an acre, up from 29 the service was projecting earlier but down from 36 last year.

Looking at the fruit harvest, the Agriculture Department says that Mr. Rinehart is not the only grower harvesting a good crop this year. It says apple production will total 75 million pounds, up from 33 million pounds last year. Peach growers picked 18 million pounds, up from 4 million pounds last year.

"For some unknown reason, tobacco has done extremely well this year," said Mr. West. "Yields will reach a record 1,450 pounds per acre," vs. 1,360 pound an acre a year ago. The total crop came in at 10.7 million pounds.

When agriculture officials, including state Agriculture Secretary Robert L. Walker, talk about a possible shakeout in the industry due to the current financial plight, they point to dairy farmers as the those most likely to fall to the wayside.

Most dairy farmers grow their own grain to feed their herds and the drought was most severe in the dairy region of the state. The ASCS estimates that about half of the corn crop in Carroll, Frederick and Washington counties dried up in the fields, and pastures and hay were affected too.

Starting this month, farmers have to pay a $40 fee to have the Department of Agriculture perform an examination of cattle that have died to determine if the cause of death was from a contagious disease. The service was formerly free.

The state will be seeking legislative approval for more fee increases in the upcoming session of the General Assembly to help offset a $4 million, or 20 percent, cut in its operating budget.

Other proposed fees increases include:

* A boost in the annual registration fee for pesticide products sold in the state to $60 per product from $35.

* An increase in the commercialfeed distribution fee to $40 from $35 per product.

* A license for a livestock dealer jumps to $50 from $25.

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