12/05/10 — 2010 a bad year for farmers

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2010 a bad year for farmers

By Dennis Hill
Published in News on December 5, 2010 1:50 AM

The past year was one Wayne County farmers, for the most part, would just as soon forget.

Intense heat during the height of the growing season doomed many fields of all types of crops. The heat started early in the spring and didn't ease up for months.

The county was one of 42 declared disaster areas by Gov. Beverly Perdue last week, opening the way for farmers to apply for low-interest government loans.

Add to the weather the growing problem of controlling pigweed and the continual rise of the cost of fertilizer, fuel and seed, and you have the makings of a dismal season.

"It's been a hard year," said Kevin Johnson, the county Extension Service's field crops agent.

Tobacco, wheat, corn and soybeans all took a beating, Johnson said. The one bright spot was cotton, which can tolerate heat and whose price had hit record levels.

"Cotton is a heat-loving crop," Johnson said, "and it did fairly well this year. The yields were fairly good, about 900 pounds an acre. Plus, these are all-time record prices for cotton. It's about a dollar a pound. I'd say Wayne County farmers will average 85 cents a pound."

Johnson said Wayne farmers planted about 10,000 acres of cotton this year. That should at least double next year, he predicted.

"Ten years ago, we had 25,000 acres of cotton. But the price had dropped so the farmers started planting less," Johnson said. "I'd expect cotton acreage to go back up next year. I suspect it will be over 20,000 acres."

But there weren't enough cotton fields to overcome the rest of the obstacles farmers ran into. Most of all, it was the hot, dry weather. It killed the corn crop, left tobacco plants disease-prone and reduced yield in both soybeans and wheat.

The wheat crop ironically was first damaged by too much water. When it was planted in late 2009, it rained on and off for weeks, often delaying farmers from getting the seed in the ground.

"We had a hard time getting the wheat planted," Johnson said. "It just wouldn't stop raining."

But by spring harvest time, it had become dry, leading to an average yield of 45 bushels per acre, down 20-25 bushels from a good year.

Rain is crucial to corn. It has to have enough water during the tasseling stage for an ear to form. And few Wayne County farms saw the necessary rain during those crucial weeks in June. Besides, many of the plants already were damaged by the relentless heat.

"The big killer in corn was the extreme heat in June when it's pollinating," Johnson said.

He estimated an average yield of 60 bushels per acre for corn, versus 110 acres in a good year. But Johnson noted that over the past few years scientists have developed heat- and drought-resistant varieties of corn that helped keep the crop from becoming a complete disaster.

"Considering the conditions, 60 bushels an acre wasn't bad," he said "If we'd been using the same varieties we used 20 years ago, we wouldn't have made 15 bushels an acre."

Some farmers were lucky and made decent crops, depending on the type of land they tilled and whether or not they got a shower of rain at the right time, Johnson said. But most weren't lucky.

Tobacco is still Wayne's chief cash crop and although, like cotton, it can take hot, dry weather better than grains, it suffered, too.

"Tobacco had a tough road from the minute it went to the field," he said. "It got off to a tough start and it never grew fast. And diseases like Granville wilt and blackshank showed up early.

"The problem this year wasn't that the farmers didn't make their pounds, many of them did, the problem was the quality. It was horrible. The companies called it 'sunbaked.'"

As a result, Wayne tobacco farmers, who plant about 9,000 acres of the leaf each year, saw a price decrease of about a quarter per pound, he said.

"That was a big deal for us," Johnson said.

The advance of pigweed added to Wayne farmers' woes.

Pigweed is only one of the many weeds farmers fight annually. But the plant has become poison-resistant and took over many fields this year. And Johnson said the problem is growing worse. There is no new chemical on the horizon to help combat the weed and it spreads rapidly. A single plant can generate 100,000 seeds.

"It's become a monster, a superweed," he said.

Looking ahead to 2011, Johnson said farmers certainly were hoping for better weather. But the effects of the past year could jeopardize some farmers' ability to operate next year. Although commodity prices are relatively high right now, the costs associated with putting a crop in the ground have risen right along with the prices. Fuel and chemicals are costly and some fields, such as cotton and soybeans, have to be sprayed four to five times to control weeds and pests.

"I just hope there will be enough money for them to get started next year," Johnson said.

The picture isn't all bleak, he added. Wayne's farmers have had the foresight to expand their operations into different crops to reduce their dependency on one. And many run livestock operations as well, which produces a steady stream of revenue.

"The one positive thing I can say is that our farmers are very diversified," Johnson said.