Maryland farmers shift acres from corn to soybeans


July 13, 2008|By TED SHELSBY

As their planting season progressed, Maryland farmers altered earlier plans and seeded less corn and more soybeans than they originally intended.

In March, farmers announced plans to plant 490,000 acres of corn this year. That would have been a decline of 9.26 percent from the 2007 planting, the largest in 15 years.

That thinking changed, however, when diesel fuel used to power their big rigs began creeping closer to $5 a gallon, fertilizer costs went through the roof and rains limited their days in the field.

According to the latest survey by the Maryland office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Statistics Service, only 480,000 acres of corn were actually planted this year.

Last year's big corn crop - 540,000 acres - was driven by the demand for the crop in the production of ethanol, which boosted prices.

Ethanol is a gasoline extender made from corn. The increased demand for corn boosted prices from about $2.50 a bushel in 2006 to $4 last year.

Last year, environmental groups, including officials with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Mid-Atlantic Water Quality Program, expressed their concerns that an increase in corn planting throughout the watershed could result in a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorus going into the bay.

In Maryland, corn is the primary ingredient in the feed for dairy and beef cows, hogs and chickens. Corn is also made into a sweetener used in many products, including soft drinks.

Across the country, farmers planted 87.3 million acres of corn this year, according the USDA. That's down 7 percent from last year's planting.

Despite the decrease, acreage of planted corn is the second highest since 1946, behind last year's total of 93.6 million acres.

In contrast with the situation in Maryland, growers across the country planted 1.31 million more acres of corn than they said they would when surveyed by USDA officials in March.

Soybean acres in Maryland are up 18 percent from last year to 470,000 acres. Barbara Rater, head of the USDA's Maryland Agricultural Statistics office, said this was equal to the 2006 crop and was only 10,000 acres smaller than the record 480,000 acres planted in 1993.

State farmers also say they will harvest 215,000 acres of winter wheat and 45,000 acres of barley this year.

Summer potato farmers expect to harvest only 2,700 acres this year, down 10 percent from last year. The alfalfa crop is estimated at 45,000 acres, with another 160,000 acres of other types of hay.

Lynne Hoot, executive director of the Maryland Grain Producers Association, said the high cost of growing corn and a wet spring were factors leading to the decline in the state corn crop.

She said some farmers feared that late corn plantings, as a result of wet grounds, would reduce their yields at harvest time. Rather than take a chance, they switched to soybeans.

State Agriculture Secretary Roger L. Richardson had predicted a decline in the size of Maryland's corn crop.

He said the cost of growing an acre of corn had increased by about 30 percent this year, due primarily to higher diesel fuel, land rental and fertilizer prices.

He said that a ton of potash fertilizer that cost about $600 last year rose to about $1,000 this year.

When all costs are included, Richardson estimated that it cost about $500 to plant an acre of corn this year, up from about $280 last year.

"Things don't always turn out the way farmers expect," Hoot said in explanation of state farmers changing their minds since March and planting less corn. "Their decision can be influenced by weather."

She said that although rains delayed the planting season, crops are off to a good start and farmers should have above-average yields at harvest time. "That is," she added, "if the rains keep up."

Protected land

Last week, the Board of Public Works approved the purchase of 25 easements protecting 3,087 acres of prime Maryland farmland in 13 counties. The cost was $21.7 million in state and local funding.

The approval brings the total farmland protected for perpetuity by the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation in Maryland to 268,778 acres.

"Maryland has the strongest agricultural land preservation record in the nation," said Gov. Martin O'Malley. "Each easement purchase proves our commitment to keep farming a viable and sustainable industry in our state.

Created by the General Assembly in 1977, the land preservation foundation purchases agricultural preservation easements that forever restrict development on prime farmland and woodland.

Its efforts, combined with those of other state and county programs, have resulted in the protection of more than 490,000 acres of farmland. This is the greatest ratio of farmland preserved to total land mass of any state.

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