11/28/11 — Wayne farmers suffer yet another tough crop year

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Wayne farmers suffer yet another tough crop year

By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 28, 2011 1:46 PM

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Allison Carter

Landy Brantham picks soybeans in a field in the Rosewood community. Brantham, who said he has been farming for 34 years, grows tobacco, corn, cotton, wheat and beans. Dry weather and hurricane winds damaged many crops.

Wayne County's crop losses from a hot dry growing season and Hurricane Irene could reach $30 million -- a "substantial" amount considering that each year crops contribute $75 million to $80 million to the county's economy, said Kevin Johnson, the director of the Wayne County Cooperative Extension Service.

Southern Wayne County suffered the most from the drought, while Irene spread her destruction across the county.

While some farmers are struggling, their diversified operations should help them weather the losses, Johnson said.

Most of the lost revenue is from two crops -- tobacco, between $18 million to $20 million because of Irene, and corn, about $11 million because of drought. Cotton, which is still being harvested, could suffer a loss of $1.2 million, he said.

The loss isn't expected to make much of an impact on next season's tobacco acreage, the county's primary cash crop averaging $30 million to $35 million annually. However, Johnson expects to see less corn planted.

He has even heard rumblings that tobacco acreage, which accounts for about 10,000 acres annually, could increase next season since demand will be up because not as much of the leaf went to market this year.

Johnson said he expects most of the acres taken out of corn production will go into cotton. Sorghum could become another avenue for farmers, he said.

"I think there will be more grain sorghum since it is a good rotation crop and an opportunity to fill the void not being met with corn," Johnson said.

The two bright spots of the growing season are soybeans that are being harvested now and wheat. Soybeans are expected to produce about $18 million, while wheat, once a stopgap rotation crop, brought in $16.8 million this year. Farmers are already planting their next wheat crop, he said.

And even with cotton losses, the crop will still do well because of the high prices cotton is commanding, he said,

Agriculture, including livestock, accounts for $350 million a year in farm income in Wayne. When agribusiness is added to the mix, the total shoots up to $763 million, making agriculture the county's leading industry.

"What makes our farmers really, really good is that they are so diversified," Johnson said.

Farmers countywide lost money and some areas lost more than others, but they have diversified crops and many also have livestock, he noted. They have a diverse operation so that when a disaster happens like this they are not out of business.

"Now they are hurt and they are struggling, but if they can get a couple of good years behind them they will be OK. If they didn't have these diversified operations, if we just had a farmer and all he had was tobacco and corn, he would not be in business the next year. But he is diversified. He had other crops and some livestock and he is able to manage that. He has put in a business plan that will enable him to survive these bumps in the road."

Farmers are not the only ones affected by the lost revenue, he said.

"That revenue goes to make land payments," Johnson said. "It goes to make equipment payments. It spreads out through everybody. It is just like an industry. You might have a thousand employees, but it is the ripple effect for what it does for the community. Same thing here. It is important and folks need to know that."

For example, it could mean that farmers won't be buying as much new equipment, he said.

"Right after Irene we knew that our tobacco damage was extremely significant," Johnson said. "We put some pretty logical, well-educated guesstimates out there on tobacco. We put it at 56 percent damaged. Right now having the tobacco crop behind us, having talked to farmers I think that we need to up that level to 60 percent."

While tobacco was hurt, the county's 26,000 acres of corn was a "disaster," Johnson said. However, some growers were able to harvest 75 bushels an acre. During an average year the yield should be 100 bushels or more per acre.

"I think our corn acres are probably going down (next year)," he said. "They have had three bad years in a row for corn. It has put a bad taste in their mouth.

"There will be some corn planted because we have some corn land, but some of the marginal land that we have been putting corn on and hoping it will rain will either be put in soybeans or grain sorghum. That is another crop that is catching the eye of growers because it is more heat tolerant, has a bigger window of opportunity and doesn't cost as much to put in and it has a similar feed value to corn so our livestock operator can still use that as a feed source."

The drought claimed about 70 percent of the corn crop -- a loss of almost $11 million.

The cotton harvest is winding down, with about 15 percent of the crop remaining in the field.

Cotton took a hit but the high prices softened the blow, he said. Still, farmers missed an opportunity to make a big profit, Johnson noted.

Currently, the price of cotton is at an all-time high at more than $1 a pound.

"So it actually hurt the farmer more this year because he had the potential to make more. For at least the past five or six years the average was 50 cents, so it would not have been as significant loss. It is always a loss, but all commodity prices are at an all-time high or have been. It hurts when you have all of this potential and can't quite get there."

Johnson said he expects cotton prices to stay high and for Wayne growers to again plant more of the crop. Slightly less than 20,00 acres were planted this year and Johnson said he expects it to be about 25,000 next year.

"In order to go any higher than that you are going to have to have growers buying equipment and I don't know that they are prepared to do that," he said.

Johnson said he has talked with farmers and is expecting cotton to average 750 pounds per acre.

"The reason the number is as high as it is that there were some acreage that yielded a significantly higher yield north of Goldsboro compared to 300 to 400 pounds south," he said. "North of Goldsboro got some rainfall that helped make the cotton crop."

Soybeans will be the last crop harvested this year and should be completed by about mid-December. The county's 50,000 acres of soybeans weathered both the drought and Irene fairly well, Johnson said. The yield is expected to be about 30 bushels per acre average and generate about $18 million.

While cotton and soybean harvesting is winding down, farmers are already planting the next wheat crop. This past year's harvest was probably the best ever in county, Johnson said, generating close to 80 bushels an acre and about $16.8 million overall.