Maryland grain farmers, especially those growing corn, appear headed for a bin-busting harvest this fall - if the weather cooperates.
In its first estimate of the scope of this year's harvest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated last week that Maryland farmers planted 540,000 acres of corn, a 10 percent increase over last year and the largest corn crop in 15 years.
Much of the additional corn was planted on land that sprouted soybeans last year, resulting in soybean plantings checking in at the lowest level since 1987. Acreage is estimated at 430,000 this year, down 40,000 acres from last year.
The sharp rise in corn planting is driven by the demand for the crop in the production of ethanol, which has boosted prices, said Julia Klapproth, a statistician with the USDA's Maryland crop reporting office in Annapolis.
Maryland farmers are not alone in their rush to cash in on the nation's move to decrease its dependence on imported oil by using corn to make ethanol, a gasoline extender. Across the country, corn planting is up 19 percent from last year, as farmers have seeded 92.9 million acres. This makes it the largest corn planting since World War II.
As in Maryland, farmers across the country cut back on soybeans, according to the government's estimate. Acreage is estimated at 64.1 million, down 15 percent from last year's record high and the smallest soybean planting since 1995.
As would be expected, corn prices dropped slightly in the past week and soybean prices jumped. But the cash price that Maryland farmers are seeing when they take their corn to the elevator still is considerably higher than a year ago, Klapproth said.
The cash price of corn was $3.68 a bushel or more in early June, up from $2.45 or more during a similar time frame last year.
With some luck, the farmers who planted soybeans this year could be the big winners come harvest time. The cash price for soybeans has risen more than 50 percent since June to the $8 level.
Melvin Baile Jr., who farms about 800 acres near New Windsor in Carroll County, appears poised to have a strong year.
"We planted wall-to-wall corn this year," he said. "That's about 500 acres. So far, we are looking pretty good."
Baile, who contracts to sell his grain on the futures market, said he is slated to get $4 a bushel for corn this year. This is up from about $2.50 last year.
The bulk of the corn and soybeans grown in Maryland is purchased by poultry companies and made into chicken feed.
"Poultry is our No. 1 customer," said Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association. "We are not apologizing that they have to pay more for their grain. Livestock has thrived the past five years on low grain prices."
"Now it's our turn," she added. "Every segment of agriculture needs to make money, we are dependent on each other."
But a crop in the field in early July does not guarantee money in the bank in October, state Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson said. The main reason? Weather.
"Farmers across the state are nervous about the weather," he said, despite the spotty rains of the past few days. "If we don't get some good rain shortly, any increase in [corn] planting will be negated by the lack of a crop come harvest time."
On many fields, soybean plants are only 4 to 6 inches high when they should be about knee high.
Maryland has plenty of company enduring a dry summer, including much of the Midwest. The state's poultry producers would take a hit if they have to go farther west than Ohio and Indiana to get supply of corn.
"The farther they have to go the higher the transportation costs and the higher their cost of production," Richardson said.
Baile reported that although his corn is surviving on only half the amount of moisture it normally receives, the crop is hanging in.
"It seems like we are in happy valley," he said. "We are doing better than some of our neighbors. Other farms in the region have gotten much less rain. Their crops are really hurting."
On the bright side, Richardson said the contract price for soybeans reached $9.30 a bushel last week.
"This is almost unheard of," he said. "The last I remember this was back in the Nixon administration.