Md. farmers reap a good harvest

Crops: Farmers celebrate an almost universally bountiful yield after a season of moderate temperatures and just-right rain.

August 22, 2004|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

The lush green acres of corn at Jerri Miller's Clearview Farm tower over the petite farmer, and every fifth or sixth stalk contains a second, albeit much smaller, ear of corn.

These are all signs of a near-perfect growing season.

"It seems like everything worked in our favor this year," said Miller, speaking over the roar of an Avco chopper harvesting corn for silage on one of the fields of her farm just outside the eastern Harford County town of Darlington. "We were able to get our planting done on time and the rains seemed to come at the right times."

Miller's farm is typical of the corn harvest throughout the state, which officials project will be the best since 2000 - and perhaps the best ever.

They credit ample - but not excessive - rain and moderate temperatures for an ideal growing season that should provide an economic boost to regions of the state that depend on farming.

"Things really look good this year," said state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley, whose department is expecting a corn crop of 62 million bushels, up 24 percent from last year. "We're looking at a bountiful harvest."

Riley was referring to the 440,000 acres of corn-for-grain grown in the state that is used as animal feed - not the sweet corn sold in grocery stores and at stands on farm lanes - although that also benefited from the favorable climate this year.

"The ears were bigger, sweeter and juicier," said Webster Grafton, who was operating the Sunshine Farm produce stand at Bel Air Bypass and Business Route 1. "We planted about 3 acres of Silver Queen this year. We didn't have any more corn this year, but the quality was better."

Sweet harvest

While fresh sweet corn is a summertime treat at many dinner tables, it accounts for a tiny portion of agriculture sales in the state each year. Farmers grew only about 4,200 acres of sweet corn to be sold at markets or farm stands this year.

About 80 percent of the sweet corn grown in the state has been harvested and sold.

Corn and soybeans are the main field crops used in food and as animal feed. While bumper crops usually mean lower prices at the supermarket, consumers aren't expected to see any meaningful savings at the checkout line this year, according to Keith Collins, the chief economist at the USDA.

Other factors, such as reductions in the size of cattle herds, are keeping prices up, he said.

"There could be some small drop in the price of pork, milk and other dairy products, but it is not something that people are going to notice," he said.

Statewide, this year's growing conditions were a pleasant contrast to last year, when early rains hindered spring planting.

"Last year, we had about 200 acres that we couldn't plant," Miller said. "Those fields were too wet. The equipment would get stuck."

Farmers faced the opposite situation the previous year - a serious drought. In 2002, the corn-for-grain harvest totaled only 31.4 million bushels, the smallest crop since 1988.

Grain farmers across the country are also sharing in the good times. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is predicting a record corn crop this year, and the soybean harvest is expected to fall just short of an all-time high.

A recent USDA survey forecasts increases in Maryland of 15 percent and 17 percent, respectively, for corn and soybean yields per acre this year over last.

"Once again, we are going to see huge mountains of corn stored outside this year," Riley said, as an indication that the corn supply will far exceed the storage capacity of farms and feed mills. "The grain elevators are already gearing up for this. They will have more than they can handle."

"I'm looking at probably my best corn crop ever," said Melvin Baile Jr., who farms about 800 acres near New Windsor in Carroll County.

"My soybeans," he said, "they are extremely healthy, dark green and lush with large leaves. They are waist-high.

"It has been a near-perfect growing season," he said. "For the most part everything is really, really in good shape. It is almost too good to be true."

According to the USDA survey, the entire state is sharing in the big harvests. Excess rain has hindered the growth of some soybeans in low-lying fields on the lower Eastern Shore, but the problem is not widespread, said Norman W. Bennett, director of the USDA's agricultural statistics service for Maryland.

There were some other dark clouds in an otherwise excellent growing season.

"Apples didn't do as well as expected," Bennett said.

The fruit, grown primarily in northern Frederick and Washington counties, fell victim to insects and diseases.

At the Hutchison Brothers Farm near Cordova in Talbot County, Robert Hutchison said he had some moisture damage to cucumbers he was growing for pickling.

Fresh peaches will be as plentiful at fruit stands this year as last. Bennett said this year's crop is expected to total 8.8 million pounds, up slightly from 8.5 million pounds last year.

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