Low grain prices, wait for rules worry farmers; New nutrient regulations might make bigger chore of keeping field records


More than 150 county farmers gathered for their annual midwinter meeting at the Maryland Cooperative Extension yesterday to hear dismal news about grain prices and frustratingly little information on new state nutrient-management regulations still being written.

"I'm here for my daily dose of depressing news," quipped Lawrence Meeks, a grain farmer who lives in Silver Run.

The meeting at Carroll County Agriculture Center in Westminster offered speakers on subjects such as weed control, marketing and breaking into export sales. Exhibitors promoted seeds, fertilizers or equipment.

"This is not a good time to be making marketing decisions," said Kevin New, an assistant professor of agricultural marketing at the University of Maryland.

Corn prices are $2.15 per bushel, compared with $3.60 three years ago, while farmers face a huge supply and short demand because most of their customers in Asia are in the throes of a financial crisis. Soybeans are fetching low prices and probably will next year, and an oversupply of wheat is expected with the spring harvest, bringing low prices for it as well, New said.

He advised farmers to avoid signing contracts with buyers that lock them into these low prices, although prices could go lower.

"You have to consider your risk tolerance," New told them. "The cards are lining up so that if we have a good crop next year, or even an average crop, we're looking at low prices next year.

"So what do I plant?" he said, repeating a question from the audience. "That's always a rough one."

Grain farmer Donny Hoff of Manchester considered raising catfish after he sold his livestock. He sold his swine amid low hog prices last year, and sold his cattle after he broke his arms in a tractor accident that left him unable to handle the heavy animals.

"It's too much money to get into," he said of aquaculture -- raising fish. "Just to get started, it would cost $250,000. The ponds have to be all lined inside. You can't just put a hole in the ground."

Meeks said farmers are trying to remain flexible and not commit to contracts to sell grain at the current low prices. As for adjusting how much they plant, it's too late to do that for wheat -- it was planted in the fall.

"A lot of us right now are probably just in a holding pattern," Meeks said.

As farmers need or want to sell, they call feed companies on a list, local and out of state, sometimes on a daily basis.

"You just call and ask them their quotes," Meeks said.

As if the low grain prices weren't bad enough, farmers are anxious about the nutrient regulations being written that will govern how they store and apply manure and chemical fertilizers. The regulations are a result of legislation passed last year in response to the Pfiesteria outbreak that killed fish in lower Maryland waterways.

Farmers are wary of the regulations, saying they are managing their nutrients voluntarily. Many, such as Meeks, do so in conjunction with the extension service.

"I'm concerned about the recordkeeping," which can be very laborious, said Meeks. Most farmers don't keep field records on a computer because of a lack of software for that purpose. Most farmers keep field records in a tabbed spiral notebook.

If the state requires more documentation, it could be time-consuming for farmers who work under unforgiving deadlines of nature.

"I've had a formal nutrient-management plan now for four years," Meeks said. "I use the extension service. It's worked well." But if the state requires additional recordkeeping, it could be a hardship, he said.

He submits soil samples and crop-yield goals, and experts at the service recommend how much of which nutrients to apply.

But variables such as drought or heavy rains can throw off such plans, and farmers worry about being hamstrung by regulations, Meeks said.

What frustrates farmers most is that the regulations, such as allowable levels of phosphorus in soil, are not in place. Nutrients such as chicken manure are high in phosphorus.

"There is an awful lot of information that's not available yet for us to make our decisions," Meeks said.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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