Md. agriculture officials offer help after hurricane

On The Farm

September 04, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

PUT YOUR troubles aside and extend a hand to help a needy neighbor. That's life in the agriculture community.

In that spirit, a top official with the state Department of Agriculture has called his counterparts in hurricane-ravaged Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama and said: "What can we do to help?"

Lewis R. Riley, head of the Agriculture Department in Maryland, said that Deputy Secretary John R. Brooks has been busy doing the phone work.

"He left messages on their machines," Riley said. "He didn't get a chance to talk to them. I guess they are so wrapped up in events related to Hurricane Katrina they haven't had a chance to respond.

"We don't know what we can do to assist farmers there, but we will be ready to do whatever we can. We all belong to the Southern Association of Departments of Agriculture. We work closely together and we want to help if we can."

Riley said it is too soon to assess the full impact of the storm on agriculture in Maryland and the rest of the nation other than to say that the resulting jump in the cost of diesel fuel is hitting farmers hard.

"It's absolutely disastrous for the agriculture community," Riley said of fuel prices. "It's coming just as farmers are getting ready to move full swing into the corn-harvesting season.

"Fuel prices are about double what they were last year and that's going to cut into the farmers' profit margins." Riley said that the average farm would use between 400 and 500 gallons of fuel a week in tractors and combines during the harvesting season.

"It's a very dim picture," he said.

Looking at a much broader picture, a senior economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington is conservatively estimating the hurricane damage to the nation's crops and livestock at $1 billion.

Terry Francl said that while the extent of the destruction likely will take weeks or longer to assess, there probably would be an additional $1 billion in indirect costs from a growing waterway shipping crisis and soaring fuel prices.

"Crop, livestock and poultry losses in the [Mississippi] Delta may be just the tip of the iceberg," Francl said.

With barges loaded with farm goods stranded on the Mississippi River and no access to ocean-going vessels, he said grain elevators have reduced the prices they are paying growers.

He warned that U.S. grain and oilseed producers may see cash prices bid for exported crops decline another 5 cents to 10 cents a bushel while the gulf ports are effectively shut down for repair.

"Furthermore, there is mounting concern that the shutdown will compel international buyers to look to other sources, such as China for corn, or South America for soybeans," Francl said.

He said this could translate to an export loss of a half-billion dollars for U.S. producers.

Like Riley, Francl also predicted that rising energy costs would undercut growers' bottom lines.

He said that crude oil delivered from the gulf accounts for 30 percent of domestic production, while the natural gas produced in the region accounts for 21 percent.

He said that about 95 percent of the oil output was disrupted during the hurricane and in its aftermath.

A resulting jump in gasoline and diesel prices could add another $500 million to the cost of harvesting this year, he said.

High-tech farming

Like most industries, farming is becoming increasingly high-tech.

Some farmers have had satellite receivers mounted on their tractors or combines for nearly a decade. The devices pick up signals from global positioning satellites orbiting 10,000 miles above Earth.

The satellites can pinpoint a farmer's tractor to within a square yard any place. Using that information in conjunction with a yield monitor in the tractor, farmers can determine the exact amount of fertilizer needed on each acre of farmland.

Whether Maryland farm operators will gain by costly investment in new technologies will be the topic of a one-day forum held by the state Department of Agriculture.

The event will be held at the Patuxent National Wildlife Center in Laurel on Sept. 21. The session runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is a charge of $15, which includes lunch.

"The volume of information and the rate of technological change in agriculture today presents many opportunities and often confusion for farmers," Riley said. "This forum is one way that MDA can help farmers weigh the options to determine what technology might be useful in their operations and why."

Information: the Agriculture Department, 410-841-5959.

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