Rain can't wash away drought, low prices for state's farmers

Gloom pervades annual meeting of grain producers

July 23, 1999|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- With the exception of a child's birth, Louis Fischer can think of nothing more rewarding than planting a seed and nurturing a crop all the way through to harvest. But the farmer from southern Carroll County knows he's at the "mercy of God" to do it, and these days that's not a particularly happy spot.

Sitting at a picnic table yesterday during the annual Maryland Grain Producers Association meeting at 4-H Park in Queen Anne's County, Fischer said this year's drought -- the third in as many years -- on top of low commodity prices makes it tough to stay in the business.

"There have been decent years with profit, but there have been too many down years to make up for," he said. "This cycle drains your capital, then you lose equity, and then the banks don't want to work with you. It's a vicious cycle."

Farmers need about 4 inches of rain per month to have a healthy crop, he said, but this year he has seen less than 3 inches since April.

"You can't grow crops on that," said Fischer, who farms about 1,600 acres of corn, beans, wheat and barley.

Even if he could, he wouldn't get much for them. Healthy crops elsewhere in the country and decreased demand from Asia have drastically reduced prices. Soybeans, for example, are selling at about $4.30 a bushel, the lowest since the early 1970s. Corn, which generally brought $3 or more a bushel, is at about $2.

"Farmers are being hit with a double whammy," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the grain association.

The meeting, held in conjunction with the Maryland Soybean Board's annual gathering, was attended by more than 200.

Charlie Sparks, who owns a 150-acre farm in Centreville, said his corn was at the right stage to greatly benefit from yesterday's rain. He'll have a crop, but it won't be as bountiful as he'd like.

He expects to get 100 bushels an acre, about half his usual yield, and with so few acres, he'll feel every dollar lost to the depressed prices.

"It's extremely difficult. Farming today is big business. It requires large amounts of capital and equipment to make enough money to stay in business," he said. "By having a small farm, I feel like I'm holding on to traditional ideals of what a family farm is."

The meeting's keynote speaker, Dennis Avery of the conservative Hudson Institute think tank headquartered in Indianapolis, said that although Americans say they favor small, family farms, the real key to farmers' survival is high-yield farming, which some frown upon because of its heavy reliance on pesticides.

"The conservative strategy is to farm available land for all it's worth," he said, admonishing the Environmental Protection Agency for what he called over-regulating farms and city dwellers for imposing their values on farmers.

Fischer said the problem with urbanites is that they don't understand the farming business and tend to see farmers looking for subsidies.

"We don't want assistance, but we'll grab it and take it," he said. "It's very frustrating because there's no worse scenario than a farmer having no crop and no price. We have to rely on some relief from government programs. Without them it's impossible to survive."

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