An elephant's eye

September 07, 2004

MAYBE YOU SAW them in full bloom at the Maryland State Fair these past 11 days: the broad smiles on the faces of farm families. And it wasn't just the gastronomic effects of corn dogs, funnel cakes and cotton candy, either. This has been a very good summer for farmers, and the fall harvest promises to be even better.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting that Maryland's two major field crops, corn and soybeans, are likely to approach record harvests this year. Corn is forecast at 141 bushels per acre, a 15 percent increase in productivity from last year and potentially the second-largest harvest on record. Soybeans are forecast at 38 bushels per acre, which would be the third-highest yield ever recorded in the state.

The good news follows a national trend. The USDA is generally optimistic about corn and soybean production elsewhere in the country, too. Even better, commodity prices are not falling to compensate for the apparent surplus. Because of shortfalls in some key producer countries in Latin America and elsewhere, U.S. farmers are poised to have a very nice year.

That's good news for the U.S. economy. In Maryland alone, the difference between a good yield and a poor one can be dramatic. Summer weather is the key. Last year, production was down because of record rainfall - many fields were literally too wet to plant. Two years earlier, the harvest was off because of drought. The difference between this year and those two? Perhaps $100 million or more in cash receipts. And that's just the direct financial benefit felt on Maryland's 12,000 or so farms.

State officials figure that Maryland agriculture represents $18 billion in economic activity. When farmers have a good year, they are more likely to spend money on upgrades such as new equipment, bigger poultry houses or a new cattle shed. When these various suppliers profit, they spend money, too. "I think we're going to see a real spurt in the farm economy," says Lewis R. Riley, Maryland's agriculture secretary.

Much has been written about the loss of farmland to suburban sprawl, and it's a serious issue. Agriculture has long been a major employer in Maryland, and it still is - thanks in no small part to the robust poultry and the nursery industries. But this year, Smart Growth policies got a major assist from Mother Nature: Nothing boosts agricultural land preservation (and a farmer's happiness) quite like a healthy bottom line.

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