No gains in grains, but diversification pays off

Alternatives: For Maryland farmers, flexibility can make the difference between profit and loss.


January 23, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff

The lush snapdragons and hothouse tomatoes that Tommy Albright grows bring in more profit than the melons, more than the beef, more than the hay. The greenhouses he has built in the last five years are keeping this third-generation Baltimore County farmer on the land.

Maryland grain farmers were still reeling from low prices three years in a row when 1999 hit them with the driest summer in 70 years, one that stunted their crops.

Prices show no sign of improving -- although the demand for corn could rise if Congress passes clean-air legislation that would lead to wider use of ethanol, a gasoline additive made from grain, said Keith Collins, chief economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Hope also remains in a thriving broiler industry on the Eastern Shore that provides a constant market for local grain, he said.

And for farmers willing to jump into something new, Maryland's greenhouse and nursery industry has grown the most rapidly of all agricultural categories, meeting the populous Mid-Atlantic region's demand for shrubs, bedding plants and cut flowers.

"From a major-crop point of view, markets are very weak," Collins said. "Soybeans are in the 30th consecutive month of decline -- so we're not even at the bottom yet."

In 1999, 550 million bushels of corn was used to produce ethanol. Depending on whether legislation is passed that would require the use of more ethanol in gasoline, as much as 1 billion bushels of corn could be sold for such use, Collins said. It's an issue surfacing in Congress, as well as among presidential candidates.

"But no bill has moved yet," Collins said. "That will be a debate in 2000."

U.S. crop and livestock farmers got relief through an all-time high of $23 billion in direct payments from the federal government during 1999, Collins said. In addition to existing programs, Congress passed emergency measures to provide $9 billion for disaster aid. Some of that was disbursed in 1999, but some will be paid in 2000 as more losses are documented over the next few months, Collins said.

Albright, the Baltimore County farmer, expanded his Monkton-area vegetable and beef farm to include more greenhouse plants five years ago. He supplies local florists and grows tomatoes to sell along with other vegetables at his produce market in Jacksonville, in northeast Baltimore County.

"It's just grown tremendously," Albright said. "That's the one bright spot. It will last until enough people get into it and the market is saturated."

For now, nursery plants and flowers are bringing in enough money to pay for the greenhouses Albright built. Horticulture enjoys second place in the state for total cash sales, right after the broiler industry, according to the Maryland Agricultural Statistics Service.

For 1999, Maryland broiler and other poultry sales amounted to $553 million. Nursery and greenhouse sales amounted to $273.7 million. Dairy sales came in third at $202.7 million, according to preliminary figures, said David Knopf, deputy state statistician.

Profits increased for the greenhouse industry by about 5 percent from 1998, Knopf said -- not as good as the 10 percent increases each year during the last few years.

But it's better than grain sales. Preliminary figures for soybean cash sales show $68.9 million, down by about 12 percent from 1998, Knopf said.

Farmers who were getting more than $7 per bushel of soybeans in 1996 were getting about $4.98 per bushel during 1999.

"I've been farming since 1979, and prices are lower than they've ever been. And it doesn't look like they'll ever recover," said Philip "Chip" Councell of Cordova in Talbot County, president of the Maryland Grain Producers Association.

"Every farmer I know is looking for an alternative enterprise, whether farm-related or not. Grain farmers are looking at vegetables, vegetable farmers are looking at greenhouses or livestock. Some farmers a looking for part-time jobs. You name it, they're looking at it."

Dairy farmers enjoyed good prices for most of 1999, but the prices fluctuated wildly, Collins said. The price per hundred pounds of milk plunged from $16.26 in September to $9.79 by November, he said.

Albright has tried to stay a step ahead of the trends over the years. In the latter half of the 1980s, he tried entertainment farming -- pumpkin patches, visiting bus loads of children and hay rides. More neighboring farms did the same and his returns diminished, so he got out. If he sees the same thing happening to the greenhouse industry, he'll look for the next trend.

Stephen L. Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau and owner of an orchard and market in northern Baltimore County, said the top issue for his fellow members is to see that Maryland preserves the business of farming, not just agricultural land.

New state regulations on the application and management of manure and fertilizer are looming for farmers. A draft has been written, but is being studied after an outcry from farmers who said it would be expensive and cumbersome for them, and put them at a disadvantage with farmers in other states who have no such requirements.

While farming can still provide a decent living, Weber said, many farmers are losing money, and continuing to farm only because they love the life.

This lure of the land provides a hint, Weber said, to why the horticulture industry is booming.

"Everyone likes to get out there and work in the soil," Weber said. "Not just farmers."

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