Rising Fuel Costs Join Growing List of Troubles for Struggling Farmers

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May 19, 2001 Rising Fuel Costs Join Growing List of Troubles for Struggling Farmers

By JOHN W. FOUNTAIN INCOLN, Neb., May 18 The green tractor buzzed like a giant wasp, plowing over a cornfield in a cloud of brown dust, burning gallons of diesel on a spring evening, the sun sinking toward a blue horizon.

It is planting season in Upland, Neb. And Galen Bunger sat atop his tractor this week with more on his mind than the cool dry earth that still must be tilled. There is still planting to be done in Upland, about 150 miles west of Lincoln. And soon, Mr. Bunger, 50, will have to turn on the irrigation system to saturate the seed he has sown over 960 acres. Then, of course, there is the spreading of fertilizer and pesticides.

All of these require fuel in some form. If there was not already enough to worry about, now there is the rise in fuel prices and every indication that before things get any better for farmers, they are bound to get worse.

"I have never had a situation like this before," Mr. Bunger said.

"For as long as I have been farming, I don't think the prices have been this low for my commodities, and the prices of fuel and fertilizer and everything has been this high," he said.

"It can't continue," his words trailed. "It can't, it can't."

All the talk about rising gasoline prices these days, and the proof at the pumps here, has fueled farmers' concerns across this agricultural land. The day after President Bush warned of a "darker future" amid rising fuel costs and no immediate signs of relief, already pinched farmers in this region said they expected fuel costs to rise even higher in coming months, putting them further in the hole.

And it is not just fuel for tractors, but also for petroleum-based pesticides, fertilizers and other farm chemicals and for powering irrigation systems. The dollars quickly add up. Mr. Bunger runs his irrigation system 24 hours a day. Each irrigation well burns 125 gallons of diesel fuel a day. With five wells, that amounts to 18,750 gallons a month and could add up to thousands of dollars more a month as fuel prices climb.

The price of fuel seems to be on everyone's mind here, not just farmers, but also people who must travel miles upon miles each day and who now fill up their tanks with some consternation.

Brandi Troyer, 20, an attendant at the Shop E-Z in Seward County, just west of Lincoln, has encountered the wrath of some patrons after they have gassed up.

"Everybody that comes through and fills up is complaining about the charge on the gas prices," Ms. Troyer said. "And I don't blame them, because it's outrageous. I just tell them, `Sorry, I don't price the stuff, I just work here.' They're just really growling when they come in. We get it every day."

But not from everyone. Nathan Earley, 11, and his brothers, Zack Earley, 8, and Ryan Weber, 12, frequent the gas station and store for candy, but occasionally they need gas for their go-kart.

"We can put $5 in and ride for five days," Nathan said, standing in the store on Thursday evening, the boys riding their non-gas-powered mode of transportation: a bicycle and skateboards.

But for motorists, the gasoline prices, which this week were as much as $1.91 for regular unleaded, $1.85 for unleaded with ethanol and $1.69 for diesel, are raising questions as well as concerns.

"I think somebody is making an undue profit, and I know, having talked to a number of the retailers, they say it's not them, so it's got to be the refiners," said Ryan Benner, 53, a secondary school English teacher who lives in Lincoln and commutes 300 miles each week to work in rural Nebraska.

"There's a little bit of frustration," Mr. Benner said. "I just don't think we've done anything over the last 10 years" to ward off the energy problems being felt today.

So far, the rise in fuel prices is costing Mr. Benner about $10 extra a week.

"If it goes to $2.50, then I'll really feel the pinch," Mr. Benner said about the price of a gallon of gas. "Actually, I feel a lot sorrier for the farmers who have to fill up their tractors."

Times like these can take their toll.

"We're depressed about things like higher fuel costs; seed costs have gone up," said Steve Eberspacher, 55, who farms about 800 acres in Seward County. "Anything it seems like we have to put into a crop is costing us more money. We're getting some of the same prices for some things that our parents farmed 20 or 30 years ago. That's the thing that isn't fair about the whole thing."

"We work our tails off to raise a good crop, but we're not getting treated any better or more for our product," Mr. Eberspacher said, sipping a cup of coffee on Thursday night on a break from planting.

What keeps him in this business, Mr. Eberspacher said, is that "I like to farm," plus the fact that his wife, Linda, brings in income from her job as a music teacher at an elementary school.

Across this fertile land, clouds of dust trail into the light of dusk, farmers busy planting and breaking up the soil. Mobile irrigation systems spray water onto fields, like gushing showerheads. The smell of earth rises in a warm breeze, and the only sounds besides a farmer's toil are an occasional passing car and, of course, birds.

Mr. Bunger has farmed around here for much of his life, growing up in rural Nebraska, nursing his crops of soybeans, corn and wheat each season. But some things have changed.

Before this year, Mr. Bunger already had gotten his farming operation pretty much down to bare bones. Where he used to till the field until it was flat, running over it two to three times, he now swipes it only once. And he has cut corners in other ways, choosing not to buy much new farm equipment for years, and instead putting away his money for a rainy day.

In proverbial terms, it is starting to rain now.

And "if this year doesn't get any better than this, I'm going to quit," he said. "Some of these guys can't bail out, unless it's a bankruptcy's out" or "they sell everything they've worked for all their life."

Where the prospect of leaving farming was once a difficult one for Mr. Bunger, that is no longer the case. If it comes to it, saying goodbye is, "not too hard now," he said from his perch on his tractor. "Not too hard at all."

Mr. Bunger fired up his tractor and rolled across the field, a trail of dust following behind. The sun was almost down, and worries here still stirred like the dust.


-- Martin Thompson (mthom1927@aol.com), May 19, 2001


It never ceases to amaze me at how easy it is for politicians to demagogue, distort markets and get the finger of blame pointed in the diametrically opposite direction from where it should be pointed: at the politicians themselves. People actually gobble up, and believe, such propaganda.

Remember Jimmy Carter's gasoline allocatons, which created long lines at the pumps. Thank god, Bush is,at least, not falling into that trap.

-- Billiver (billiver@aol.com), May 19, 2001.

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