Maryland farmers glad 1997 is over After a fine wheat crop, corn and bean harvests ruined by drought


December 30, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

Maryland farmers are about to close the book on 1997, and it won't have a happy ending.

"It was a mixed year," said M. Bruce West, chief statistician with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, as he scanned the numbers that tell the story of how well or how poorly individual segments of the farming community fared during 1997.

Robert Raver agreed with West's assessment.

"The year started off great and ended in disaster," said the western Montgomery County grain farmer.

"I had the best winter wheat crop ever; my yield went off the chart. I improved on my best wheat yield 15 percent.

"It was a perfect season for wheat. I was pushing 75 to 80 bushels per acre. In the past, when my yield was 60 bushels [per acre] I thought I was doing fine."

Raver's corn and soybean crops fell victim to the summer's serious drought and didn't fare nearly as well.

"It was a pretty bad year for corn," he said. "It was my worst since I began farming 35 years ago."

Where he normally harvests between 120 and 130 bushels of corn per acre from his farm near Dickerson, Raver said, "I don't think I broke 40 bushels [per acre]" this year.

It was pretty much the same for agriculture as a whole, according to West.

"There were pluses and minuses, depending upon the time that a particular crop was ready for harvest," he said.

Overall, West estimated that gross farm sales -- the dollar value of what farmers are paid for their crops and livestock -- fell slightly more than 2 percent to $1.78 billion, down from $1.82 billion.

Net farm income will be off more sharply. West estimated that net income will total $310 million, off 16 percent from last year's $368.4 million.

"That's a conservative estimate," he said, explaining that it doesn't take into account that many livestock and dairy farmers are being forced to buy more animal feed this year because the TC drought destroyed their hay and corn harvests and dried their pasture land.

Lewis R. Riley, who will step down as state agriculture secretary on Thursday, estimated that net farm income could be off by as much as 30 percent this year.

Corn was the major contributor to the decline in total farm sales, according to West.

"Corn farmers took the biggest hit," he said, estimating the value of this year's crop at $58 million, down from $106 million last year.

He put the value of the soybean harvest at $77.6 million, down from $93.7 million a year ago.

Looking at other segments of agriculture, West forecast the value of this year's winter wheat harvest at $70.8 million, up nearly 34 percent from $52.9 million last year.

West said the wheat, along with other crops harvested before the summer drought, including barley and rye, did well this year.

Horticulture, which includes the growing of landscaping shrubs, nursery plants and flowers, shared in the good times. West forecast a $5 million rise in sales to $285 million.

It was just the opposite situation for dairy farmers, who are expected to realize a $5 million drop in sales to $195 million.

That doesn't tell the full plight of the state's dairy industry, according to Myron L. Wilhide, president of the Maryland Dairy Industry Association and owner of a dairy farm near Detour.

"It was a terrible year," he said. "We got hit by a double whammy: falling prices for our milk and a serious drought that destroyed our hay and grain."

Yesterday, Wilhide was unloading a shipment of alfalfa hay trucked in from Kansas. At $200 a ton, it was to replace the hay that dried up in his field during the summer.

Nor was 1997 a good year for the state's poultry industry, the single largest sector of production agriculture.

In addition to dealing with the Pfiesteria crisis, chicken growers are expected to see sales drop by $13 million this year, according to West. He forecast broiler sales at $500 million, down from $513 million last year.

West attributed the decline to lower broiler prices and a decline in chicken production.

Hog sales are expected to total $10.5 million, down from $12.8 million in 1996. Cattle sales are forecast to be off $3 million to $41.5 million this year.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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