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Sad Harvest Despite Bumper Crop
By Michael James
Sept. 17 The latest federal crop numbers imply a time of plenty for farmers, with an all-time record corn crop and bumper crops of soybeans and other goods.
Those numbers lie, many farmers say.
This booming economy just hasnt boomed around here, says Gary Branch, a peanut farmer who also runs a farm supply store in Ty Ty, Ga.
Its hard to plan for another year, Branch says. I think the [farmers] that can afford to quit will quit, and the ones that cant will be forced [by banks] to quit.
Particularly in the South, stricken by three successive years of drought, a number of farmers blame weather, high farming costs, crop prices recalling the Great Depression, a controversial government farm policy and other factors for financial binds that have some of them worrying about their futures.
In a hand-to-mouth business where farmers often borrow money early in the year to pay for seed, fuel, irrigation and high-tech equipment, and pay back the loans with profits from their crops such conditions can be tough to endure year after year.
Never Seen It So Bad
Theres a general concern in the countryside, a very pessimistic attitude, says Tom Buis, vice president of government relations for the National Farmers Union, which represents the interests of family farmers. Ive never seen farmers as down as they are this year.
The president of the Alabama Farm Bureau, which represents farmers and ranchers in a state hit by two years of drought, says state officials have told him its possible Alabama could lose a quarter of its farms this year, and he doesnt sound surprised.
The weather is the worst all the people in my community have ever seen it, says the farm bureau president, Jerry Parham, who farms in Pickens County near the border with Mississippi.
My farm pond has never been dry in my lifetime; it is now and Im 52 years old, he adds. I have oak trees that are 100 years old that have died from lack of water.
Thirty-five percent of the lower 48 states were classified through August as being in severe or extreme drought, making this years drought the most extensive since 1988, according to Doug LaConte, who puts together the federal governments drought forecast.
From Texas to South Carolina its been a very bad year for farms, says Mark Svoboda, a climatologist for the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. A lot of wholesale total write-offs on crops. Not good.
Farmers have it so bad, the federal government is granting $15 billion in federal emergency farm relief this year, says Mary Beth Schultheis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is the second year in a row such relief has been granted.
Despite that, the nation is seeing bumper crops for corn, soybeans and other commodities because drought unexpectedly spared much of the nations breadbasket in the Corn Belt. Only Nebraska suffered from statewide drought.
They really dodged a bullet Svoboda says of the Corn Belt states of Illinois, Indiana and much of Iowa. The drought was affecting all of these states in the spring, but the rains came to the eastern two-thirds of the belt.
But still, outside the majority of the Corn Belt, which dominates the numbers for many crops, few major farming areas have had good years.
Im not going to be walking through a field in the high plains or the South and say its been a great year, says Brad Rippey, who works on the Agriculture Departments weekly weather and crop bulletin. Id be laughed out of there because its been a regional disaster for those folks.
Strictly by the numbers, cotton is actually up from last year but the last two years, 98 and 99, were actually drought years across the South, he adds.
To add insult to injury, those farms that are producing, some with bumper crops, may be helping to drive long-depressed crop prices even lower some as low as during the Great Depression when adjusted for inflation, Buis says.
Commodity after commodity, its half price what it was in 1996, he says.
Thats bad for all farmers and even worse if you have other problems.
If you happen to be on a farm where you have a drought-reduced crop and reduced prices, that can be a double whammy, Rippey says.
Farmers Union presidents in Nebraska, affected by drought, and North Dakota, stuck with poor quality crops soaked by too much rainfall, say agitated calls to hotlines they operate indicate many farmers plan to throw in the towel.
The price of corn at my local elevator has been $1.40, which is 26 cents a bushel lower than it was 40 years ago without adjusting for inflation, says John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. So when a farmer has expenses that he incurs and hes trying to meet his family living costs and his farm operating costs with commodity prices for 50 years ago, obviously its not a good situation. Obviously it doesnt work.
Cause of Price Slump in Dispute
Crop prices have been low for years, and observers are divided on the causes.
Some say the federal government has let large corporations stretch the limits of antitrust laws to the detriment of family farmers.
In 1985, for example, four companies controlled 39 percent of the U.S. cattle market. Today, four companies control 70 percent.
More than 60 percent of the flour milling and 80 percent of the soybean crushing also is controlled by four companies.
Buis and officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture openly blame 1996s federal Freedom to Farm Act for farm woes.
It encourages overproduction and it encourages all of that production to be out on the market, which depresses prices, Buis says. If you drive through the Midwest and the West, youll see a lot of grain on the ground. Theres no place to go with it.
The law scaled back income-based subsidies, ended controls on planting and gave farmers a series of fixed annual payments. Critics say the fixed payments were insufficient when commodity prices fell sharply in 1998.
Weve repeatedly said at the USDA that the farm bill is not giving farmers an adequate safety net, says Schultheis of the USDA. Congress has had to appropriate some additional money to provide emergency relief for farmers the last two years because the federal policy does not provide enough money.
However, Tim Cansler, a government relations director for the American Farm Bureau, a farmers group with more larger farms as members, says commodities prices fell in response to market forces such as the collapse of Asian economies. He supports the bulk of the 1996 farming act and the philosophy behind it.
Our delegate body [of farmers and ranchers] believes in market-oriented agriculture and responding to market signals, not responding to government involvement in farm policies as we have for the past 60 years, Cansler says.
Cansler says the government has had to intervene the past two years with disaster aid not because of a failed farming policy, but because of a disaster the drought.
Mother Nature Three, Lousiana Zero
The weather forecast is brightening for Nebraska and the Southeast, where fall and winter rains may start chipping away at huge rainfall deficits, LaConte says.
But in Louisiana, despite three years of drought, rain forecast for this weekend may be unwelcome.
Farmers like to see rain, but cotton farmers dont like to see it at harvest time, says Mike Danna, a spokesman for the Louisiana Farm Bureau. The cotton bowls need to be dry. You dont like to pick wet cotton.
You never get it when you need it is, I guess, what it boils down to, he adds. Were three years into it on this now. Its Mother Nature three, Louisiana farmers zero.
In western Texas, drought-stricken for four of the past five years, the federal forecast is far more dire than late or untimely rain: Unlike extended forecasts in other drought areas, it calls for almost no rain at all.
An extended U.S. government drought forecast calls for arid conditions to persist there at least through December, probably longer, as dry weather patterns shift westward from the Southeast to the Southwest.
If that forecast is true, were looking at a disaster of catastrophic proportions, says Gene Hall, a spokesman for the Texas Farm Bureau. A lot of these families are going to have some pretty painful decisions to make.
Wes Sims, president of the Texas Farmers Union, says ranchers in his state are selling off their livestock breeding herds to make ends meet essentially risking the long-term viability of their ranches for short-term survival. He says one young cattleman with a family told him he was down to 11 cows.
Eleven is meaningless for a young family like that, Sims said. The games over.
More rain is forecast for Georgia, maybe even moisture from this weekends tropical storm, but it still may be hard to make it to the next planting season.
Well survive, Branch says. Im tough. Im going to have to eat peanuts all winter, but Ill survive.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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A SIGN OF THE TIMES!!
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