Md. farmers have many blessings to count

On The Farm

November 20, 2005|By TED SHELSBY

Farmers are not known for flaunting their blessings.

They grumble about the weather and fuss about low grain prices, even when things are good.

But between the first drumstick and the last football game this Thanksgiving, Maryland farmers might want to consider taking a moment to count their blessings.

"It has been a bountiful year," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley said last week as he took a break from making repairs on his John Deere tractor.

"There were a few ups and downs with the weather," he said. "There was a period, early in the planting season, when things were too wet and we had a period of drought near harvest time. But, overall, farmers have a lot to be thankful for this year."

Riley and other Maryland agriculture officials recently paused to reflect on the status of the current growing season. Their thoughts:

Be thankful for a governor who recognizes farming as an important industry and listens to the concerns of farmers. "When Robert Ehrlich came into office, he said farmers would have a seat at the table when decisions were made affecting agriculture," said Riley. "He has lived up to that. He's not a farm boy, but he listens to farmers and tries to understand their problems."

Says Doug Green, chairman of the Maryland Agricultural Commission, a 24-member group representing a cross-section of farming that serves as an advisory board to the agriculture secretary: "The whole agriculture community should be thankful that the political climate in Annapolis has changed. For the first time in a long while, farmers have a voice in the State House."

The governor will host an all-day forum on the future of Maryland farming in February.

Be thankful the dreaded soybean rust - a highly contagious fungal disease that can destroy a crop - never made it to Maryland.

The disease has been creeping north since being carried to Florida from South America by hurricane winds last year. "Its spread stopped at North Carolina," said Arv Grybaukas, an associate professor and plant pathologist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Be thankful that the number of dairy farms in the state held steady this year. Maryland has been losing dairy farms at about twice the rate of the nation for a decade.

Be thankful there was no outbreak of a potentially deadly strain of E. coli bacteria carried by animals during the state and county fair season.

Animals in petting zoo exhibits at fairs in Florida and other states were blamed for E. coli infections that hospitalized more than 100 people - most of them children.

Be thankful that the corn yield of 142 bushels per acre is the second highest on record. Despite the late-season drought, the soybean yield was close to normal at 34 bushels per acre.

Be thankful that the poultry industry, Maryland's largest farm sector and a major contributor to the economy of the Eastern Shore, is thriving. "The poultry industry is alive and well," said Green.

"The demand for chicken is good, exports are holding up and prices are pretty good."

Be thankful that the avian flu virus that has been so lethal to chickens in other parts of the world hasn't made it to this country.

Be thankful that net farm income is expected to be pretty good. "We are not going to see the 19 percent jump in net income we had last year, but it's going to be a moderately profitable year for farmers," Riley said.

Be thankful that fuel prices are on the decline. "The high cost of fuel hit farmers hard, really hard," said Riley. "When the final figures are in, you're going to see that it was a major blow to farm income."

Be thankful that plans for an ethanol production plant in Maryland are moving forward.

The General Assembly this year approved a 20-cents-a-gallon subsidy (up to $3 million) for the production of ethanol.

The gasoline additive that can be made from corn, wheat or barley would give grain farmers a new market for their crops.

Be thankful that more and more farmers are giving up their resistance and developing nutrient management plans designed to prevent farm runoff blamed for polluting the bay.

"That has been a very controversial issue for a number of years, but the plans are falling into place," Riley said.

He added that about 80 percent of the farms have complied with the law. "That's better than we expected, but we are not yet where we want to be."

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