Farmers' tough decision: What to pick for spring planting


April 09, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

After careful thought, Phil Councell Jr. decided that he would rather risk losing his crop to a plant disease this year than to a subpar growing season.

"If I plant corn, I face a financial risk," said the 47-year-old grain farmer, who tends about 1,000 acres outside Cordova in Talbot County.

With the cost of fertilizer increasing, Councell said, his corn crop would have to be near perfect for it to be profitable. "There's no margin of error for weather problems," he said.

Another option - soybeans - brings a different kind of worry.

If he plants soybeans, he said, "I know I could lose the crop to soybean rust."

Soybean rust - or Asian soybean rust - is a highly contagious fungal disease that has been creeping toward Maryland from the Deep South since it was discovered in Louisiana about two years ago.

In other parts of the world, including South America, it has reduced the yield of soybean fields by as much as 80 percent when left untreated.

Soybean rust was found as far north as Georgia last year, said Bill Kenworthy, a professor in the department of natural resource sciences and landscape architecture at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"We are cautiously optimistic that we won't have a problem in Maryland this year, but we can't say for certain," he said.

In the end, Councell decided against planting corn, of which he normally puts in about 350 acres. His decision was based on the cost of liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which has more than doubled in two years.

Like Councell, farmers around Maryland and across the nation have been weighing the risks and making their best guess on what crops to plant this year.

Their early intentions were reported last week in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's annual prospective planting report.

The report indicated that Maryland farmers are playing it safe. They will be cutting back, albeit slightly, on corn and soybeans, the two main grain crops that are used primarily for feed to support the state's large poultry industry. But they have boosted their production of wheat and barley.

State farmers expect to plant 470,000 acres of soybeans this year - their smallest crop since 2003 when their plantings were hampered by a wet spring and early summer.

Corn growers are expected to plant 460,000 acres this year. This is down from 470,000 acres last year, but equal to the 2004 corn acreage.

Corn and soybean acreage will both be off 10,000 acres, or slightly more than 2 percent, if farmers follow through on their intentions.

Bruce L. Gardner, a professor of agricultural resources and economics at the University of Maryland, College Park, said conditions in other parts of the country also affect the decisions of local farmers.

"Across the country, we already have a lot of corn around. There's a big supply of corn in stock and this could hold prices down," Gardner said.

Norman Bennett, director of U.S. Department of Agriculture's Maryland farm statistics office, noted that farmers planted 200,000 acres of winter wheat, an increase of 45,000 acres from the 155,000 acres planted the year before.

Barley plantings are up 6,000 acres to an estimated 52,000 acres.

Bennett said the increase in small grains (wheat and barley) was likely due to an increase in Maryland cover crop programs.

The state pays farmers to grow cover crops over the winter months to draw nitrogen from the soil to prevent it from making its way into creeks, rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.

Looking at the bigger picture, the USDA reports that corn growers across the country intend to plant 78 million acres of corn this year. This would be 5 percent smaller than last year's crop.

If realized, this would be the lowest corn acreage since 2001, when 75.7 million acres were planted.

Keith Collins, the chief economist at the USDA, said the corn acreage was down this year as a result of growers switching to other, less input-intensive crops because of high fertilizer and fuel costs.

It takes about twice as much fertilizer and tractor fuel to grow and harvest an acre of corn, compared to an acre of soybeans.

The nation's soybean producers intend to plant 76.9 million acres this year, up 7 percent from last year. If realized, this will be the largest planted area on record.

"At this point these are just intentions," Bennett said. "Farmers look at these numbers and they may change their minds as they try to determine how the crop intentions report might impact the market and prices of grain."

Tobacco growers

Maryland tobacco farmers sold 320,000 pounds of tobacco at auction this year. This was the smallest sale on record, dating to the Civil War.

The good news for the few remaining farmers participating in the production and sale of a crop is that the price was up this year.

During the three-day sale last month, tobacco buyers paid a total of $493,560 ($1.54 a pound) for Southern Maryland tobacco.

Last year the auction spanned seven days and buyers paid $2 million ($1.43 a pound) for 1.4 million pounds of leaf.

Farmers have been growing tobacco in Maryland for more than 370 years. There is growing speculation among tobacco officials that last month's action will be the last one held in the state.

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