Farmers reap a year of plenty

On The Farm

September 18, 2005|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND farmers harvested big bucks last year as two key measures of financial performance hit all-time highs.

Cash receipts and net income grew to record levels in the state, according to the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

"When farmers are profitable, communities can benefit strongly from retail sales, job opportunities and overall quality of life," said Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley.

Riley added that a profitable farm "is the best way to keep agricultural land in production -- something that is more important than ever to farmers facing intense development pressure today."

The good financial times were shared by a variety of farm operations. According to the department, wheat sales rose 60 percent last year. Sales of broilers, the leading commodity in the state, jumped 27 percent, to a record $628 million.

Even milk farmers, who have suffered from low milk prices much of the past decade, shared in the prosperity. The average monthly milk check was 22 percent bigger than the year before. Milk sales totaled $196 million last year.

"Conditions were near-perfect," said Norman Bennett, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service for Maryland.

Those near-perfect conditions generated total sales of $1.74 billion, an increase of nearly 19 percent over 2003.

Once the cost of operations was removed, the bottom line net income totaled $587 million, according to Bennett. This is nearly 30 percent above the farm profit of $453.5 million in 2003, when some grain crops suffered from excessive rain early in the planting season.

Greenhouse and nursery operations, the second-largest and fastest-growing agriculture sector in Maryland, posted sales of $360 million, a gain of 11 percent over the previous year.

Corn for grain sales rose 36 percent, to $120 million, and soybean sales totaled $112 million, up 30 percent.

Grain farmers benefited despite lower corn and soybean prices. Corn prices were off 68 cents a bushel, and the price farmers received for their soybeans dropped $2.35 a bushel.

But near-record yield for both crops generated the highest statewide receipts for corn since 1996, and record sales for soybeans.

The good fortune that Maryland farmers enjoyed in 2004 was in contrast to preceding years.

Bennett said net income totaled $453.5 million in 2003, when crops suffered from excessive rain during spring planting.

Farmers had to cope with the opposite scenario in 2002. That was the year a severe drought took a heavy toll on field crops and net income totaled only $228.6 million.

Based on the USDA's early crop estimates, 2005 will fall short of last year's results.

"It will be a good year," said Bennett, but not a repeat of last year's bin-busting grain harvest that forced grain dealers to store corn and soybeans on their parking lots.

Based on field conditions as of Sept. 1, the USDA is forecasting that corn yields, the best measure of how well the crop is progressing, are expected to be off 13 percent this year.

Soybean production is expected to fare only slightly better. The government expects yields will be off 10.2 percent.

Weed sprouts late

Homeowners who experienced a healthy crop of crabgrass this year can expect much the same next year.

Peter H. Dernoeden, a turf grass specialist with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension, blames the weather for the weed's attack on lawns across the state this summer.

He said herbicides usually are the most effective and economical means of controlling crabgrass. They are usually applied in early spring before the crabgrass seed germinates and the herbicides decline to ineffective levels by early July.

This year, however, was different, he said. Unusually cool spring weather that delayed the germination cycle -- followed by frequent thunderstorms that stimulated crabgrass seed germination -- caused large populations of crabgrass to emerge in July and early August, several weeks later than usual.

"Hence, if you had a crabgrass problem this year, you will have a problem in 2006," he said.

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