Monday, January 10, 2000

Low yields, low prices

Drought endangers farms

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fred Vonderhaar stands by a bale of hay, the commodity that has helped his farm break even.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        LEBANON — Fred and David Vonderhaar farm 1,600 acres of field corn and soybeans, but hay and straw help them break even.

        The brothers bale extra hay and straw and sell it to developers, horse owners and back-yard gardeners.

        They hope the extra income will allow them to withstand the double whammy of the past two years: low yields for Ohio's two biggest cash crops and low prices for what they grew.

        Further threatening their farm's viability is Ohio's unbroken drought, despite a recent springlike storm.

        Unfortunately, “in order to get high prices and high yields, something's got to happen somewhere else,” Jerry Brown, Boone County agriculture extension agent, said. “You've got to hope your neighbor doesn't get rain.”

        It's a balancing act the Vonderhaars know can't go on forever.

        As with others among Ohio's 31,000 full-time farm ers, the Vonderhaars say 2000 will be a make-or-break year.

        “There's going to be a number (of farmers) who will have a hard time finding money to make a go at it again,” said Jim Ramey, state statistician who has worked at the Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service for 35 years. “I think this is one of the toughest years farmers have faced in a long time.”

        The extent of the problem won't be known until the Agricultural Statistics Service's spring survey.

        The service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimated soybean and corn yields fell as much as 20 percent in Ohio last year.

        Soybeans and corn are Ohio's leading crops, part of a $56.2 billion-a-year agriculture and food processing industry, according to the Ohio Farmland Preservation Task Force. It said the industry supported one in six jobs in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available.

        Soybeans, the top crop, may have averaged 30 bushels an acre in 1999, seven fewer than the year before. The average for corn is predicted to be 125 bushels an acre, 16 bushels fewer an acre than in 1998, Mr. Ramey said.

        Averages were raised by some west-central farms that recorded 200 or more bushels an acre. Areas in central and southern Ohio where rainfall was lowest fared far worse, he said.

        Northern Kentucky farmers recorded an average year, said Jerry Brown, Boone County agriculture extension agent, said. The county's leading crop, tobacco, suffered more from the national debate and litigation over cigarettes than the drought, he added.

        But tobacco was offset by improved prices for beef cattle, Boone county's second-leading crop.

        Kentucky corn and soybeans also fared well, Mr. Brown said, and many fields near the Ohio River were not hit hard by the drought.

        In southwest Ohio, the Vonderhaars saw their 1999 corn harvest fall from an average of 115 to 120 bushels an acre to about 75 bushels. Soybeans plummeted as well, from about 40 bushels an acre to 18.

        Despite the drought, the brothers broke even by diversifying with hay and straw. Hay prices have remained strong and the Vanderhaars harvested straw in early July before the worst of the drought hit.

        “Once we start going backwards (financially), we'll have to talk,” Fred Vonderhaar said. “Right now, we're able to eke out a living. We enjoy doing this; that's why we're staying with it.”

        Still, Mr. Vonderhaar said, the coming season looks bleak. “There's nothing out there to say, "Boy, stay in it one more year.' People say, "There's a light at the end of the tunnel,' but we can't see the light. It's too dark.”

        Jim Newman, a climatologist and retired professor of meteorology at Purdue University in Indiana, offered a glimmer. By the time farmers start planting in late April, Dr. Newman said, the drought will have moved west from Ohio and into corn belt states such as Iowa and Illinois.

        The Tristate had its turn, Dr. Newman said. “Ohio, Indiana and Northern Kentucky ought to look pretty good this year.”

        The National Weather Service's long-term forecast also predicted the drought will relent, with above average temperatures and precipitation expected this winter. For December and January, the Tristate is ahead of the average of 5.74 inches by 1.6 inches.

        Still, Mark Anthony, communications director for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, was cautious about predictions, noting, “The experts didn't predict this drought.”

        The Cincinnati-area ended 1999 nearly 9 inches below the average rainfall of 41.33 inches. The driest months were in summer and fall, critical growing times for crops. The Tristate hadn't seen so little rain since 1976, which recorded 30.29 inches.

        The Palmer Drought Index, used by the National Weather Service and agriculture experts, indicated southwest Ohio needs nearly 7 inches above the average of rain over the next few months to end the drought.

        Last week's storm — though a needed respite — didn't solve the problem. The rain fell too fast and the ground didn't have time to absorb it before it ran off, said Brian Coniglio, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Wilmington.

        “We've still got a way to go,” he said, “but we're starting to head in the right direction.”

        That's welcome news to Jim Lutmer, who farms 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans around Lebanon.

        He called 1999 “a disaster. No rain. No crops. And no prices.”

        As for what will happen if the drought continues, “I don't want to think about it. You just can't keep producing and not turn a profit.”

        Last year was another hard lesson in supply-and-demand for Ohio farmers. Other states had good years for corn and soybeans, so supply was up and prices were down.

        In January 1996, a bushel of corn sold for $3.21, Steve Bartels, Butler County's agriculture extension agent, said. This year, corn's going price is $1.80. In the same period, a bushel of soybeans went from $6.98 to $4.60.

        At those prices, farmers are barely meeting their expenses, Mr. Bartels said. For instance, corn generally costs $270 to $300 an acre for fertilizer, labor, seeds and equipment. Farmers must get 150 bushels an acre at $2 a bushel to coverout-of- pocket expenses.

        “We're not to the place where people are having to go bankrupt because of two bad years,” Mr. Bartels said, “but what it really amounts to is that if we have another year in 2000 like we have in the past two, a lot of families are really going to be hurting.”


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