12/13/07 — Farmers suffered losses for 2007

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Farmers suffered losses for 2007

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on December 13, 2007 2:31 PM

To say 2007 was bad for Wayne County farmers would be putting it mildly.

Rather, with the losses totaling in the tens-of-millions of dollars, county Cooperative Extension agriculture agent Kevin Johnson said it's looking to be one of the worst years in a very long time.

"Last year (2006) I'd say we had $320 million in farm income," he said. "This year, I'd say $35 million in losses would probably be a good estimate. But that's just the potential of what they had that they didn't get.

"There are so many other hidden variables there (like rising input costs) that are hard to nail down."

The problem was one of weather.

Between the Easter freeze and the continuing drought, Johnson explained, Wayne County's three biggest crops -- wheat, corn and soybeans -- were all dealt devastating blows.

"This is how farming is. They're used to environmental challenges. They've had droughts and they've had freezes, but you usually don't have both in the same year," he said. "You might lose two crops in a year, but to lose all three is rare."

Exacerbating the impact is the fact that for all three crops, prices were at or near all-time highs.

"It's kind of psychological," Johnson said. "There were these high prices out in front of them and the thought that they could finally make some good money."

But, said David Vinson, "if you don't make the crop, it doesn't matter."

Farming all throughout Wayne and three other counties, he figures his wheat crop was down 30 to 40 percent, his corn, 30 percent, and soybeans 60 to 70 percent.

"This was the worst soybean crop I've ever had, the worst wheat crop since 1985 and the worst corn crop in five years," Vinson said.

Across the county, Johnson continued, the drought drove corn yields down from about 115 to 70 bushels per acre. Soybeans were down from about 32 to 18 bushels per acre. And because of the freeze, wheat was down from about 60 to 30 bushels per acre.

Those three alone totaled at least $16.1 million of the income loss.

Other crops having off years included fruit and produce -- affected by the freeze -- and cotton, which is experiencing extremely low prices.

Tobacco, though, Johnson said, did fairly well, as did smaller crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes.

"They made their (tobacco) pounds for the most part. The quality wasn't there, but it was still a decent year considering the weather conditions," he said.

Livestock, especially poultry and swine, also was profitable, though many farmers are worried now about the availability and cost of feed during the winter.

Still, Johnson continued, "The more diversified the farmer, the better off they were. The more diverse you are, the easier it is to absorb those losses, and a lot of our farmers are very diversified."

But for those already living on the edge, this year may end up being the final straw.

"I suspect we'll lose a few farmers this year and I expect a few will retire," Johnson said. "But there'll be ones to take over that land and buy that equipment. We'll have just as much farming next year as we did this year."

Those who choose to continue, though, are doing so anxiously.

"It'd be tough to take two of these years back to back. That usually doesn't happen, but it makes you a whole lot more cautious and a whole lot more nervous," said Harold Overman of the Grantham community. "It makes this more of a gamble."

And, he added, with the federal Farm Bill held up in the Senate and the federal omnibus budget bill held up in the House, he's not counting on any disaster relief money anytime soon.

But because of the high prices, Johnson expects both wheat and soybean acreage to increase next year, though corn will likely fall because of the rising input costs. Other crops are likely to stay fairly steady.

"They'll be going after those prices and hoping for a good year to make up for these losses," he said.

Success, however, will depend on whether or not the drought breaks.

If it doesn't, Johnson cautioned, "it's going to be bad."

"A lot of farmers can absorb one year but they can't do two years. We need rain next year," he said.

Fortunately, according to the state climate office, though most of the state will still be in a deficit, precipitation levels should be close to normal by summer.

"It should get better," said Dustin Nelson, spokesman for the State Climate Office of North Carolina.