USDA proposal riles grain farmers

They say ending Md. crop forecasts would hurt planning

May 14, 1999|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

A proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to discontinue publication of Maryland crop production forecasts during the growing season has angered the state's grain growers, who say the lack of information would put them at the mercy of their largest customers.

"This really ticks me off," Melvin Baile Jr., past president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, said yesterday.

Baile growns corn, wheat and soybeans on 700 acres near New Windsor in Carroll County. He said the government's information on the size of crops locally and in other parts of the country is vital to his planting and marketing decisions.

"If we don't have an independent source of information, like the USDA, the large agri-companies that buy our grain will be able to use their own estimates in moves to drive the price down," he said. "There would be no checks and balances in the system."

Ray Garibay, head of agricultural statistics for the Maryland Department of Agriculture and an employee of the USDA agriculture statistics service, disclosed the government's plan Wednesday when he addressed the Maryland Agriculture Commission.

"The proposal on the table is that states that don't provide 1 percent [of the U.S. production] of a commodity will be dropped from the forecasts," Garibay told the 21-member agriculture advisory group.

But, he said, "it is just a proposal. No decision has been made."

He said the government would seek input from farmers before it makes a final decision, which is scheduled for November.

Garibay said it is not a budget issue. He said the move is designed to direct more of the USDA's resources at getting better estimates at the national level.

Under the proposal, the forecasting service would concentrate more on states such as Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska and Minnesota, which produce between 9 percent and 18 percent of the nation's corn and soybean harvests.

Maryland farmers produce only one-half of 1 percent of the corn grown in the United States, 0.6 percent of the soybeans and 0.5 percent of the wheat.

"Maryland is America in miniature," Garibay told the commission, noting that the state grows a wide variety of crops but production is small compared with other states.

Garibay pointed out to USDA officials that Maryland has a giant poultry industry, and most of the corn and soybeans grown in the state is used by chicken processors as feed grain.

Without the government reports, Garibay said, the big poultry companies in Maryland and Delaware could take advantage of the lack of information and pay farmers less for their grain.

Garibay is proposing that the USDA not drop Maryland forecasts entirely, but perhaps reduce the number of monthly forecasts.

"I will do battle with the feds if you folks tell me this is not acceptable," Garibay told the panel.

He said there is "a lot of room for discussion and negotiations" with the USDA and expressed confidence that a compromise could be reached.

Robert Hutchison, who farms 4,000 acres near Cordova in Talbot County, said he uses the forecasts to help determine "whether I price my grain for fall delivery or store it to price later. It's another tool that farmers use to make marketing decisions, and I would hate to lose it."

Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association Inc., said the USDA "should try to help farmers make a living," not deprive them of needed marking information.

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