In some fields, like vineyards, drought is not all bad

The Baltimore Sun

From a farmer's perspective, not much good can be said about a drought.

But there are silver linings. Winemakers like hot, dry summers, which generate sweeter, more flavorful grapes that make for a better wine that can fetch a higher price.

And the 2007 drought has effectively stymied the advance of Asian soybean rust, a plant-killing disease that can devastate a crop.

"Up until last week, we had zero risk of soybean rust due to the drought," said Arv Grybauskas, a plant pathologist at the University of Maryland, College Park in a report issued last week updating the spread of the disease.

That's a little good news in a year when grain crops, particularly on the Eastern Shore, have been hard hit by the drought.

In other parts of the world, soybean rust, a fungus, has reduced yields by as much as 80 percent when left untreated. The USDA has been tracking the spread of the disease since it was first discovered in Japan in 1902. It moved through Asia, Australia and Africa before making its way to Brazil and Argentina in 2000.

It arrived in the United States in 2003, according to agricultural scientists who theorize that the fungus, an airborne disease, hitched a ride on the winds of hurricanes Frances and Ivan.

Last year, the disease was spotted in fields as close as Virginia. So far this year, its march north from Florida ended in Georgia.

But this could change, Grabauskas said. He warns that a hurricane could still bring the fungus spores into the area before "double crop" soybeans - planted in early summer after the harvest of the winter wheat crop - are harvested in mid-October.

Such is the fortune of a farmer in a year when the weather poses challenges. First it was the drought that destroyed up to 70 percent of the soybeans in parts of Southern Maryland this year. Now farmers need to pray that hurricane winds and the accompanying rain don't bring in a globetrotting invader to claim what's left of plants that have survived the drought.

Farm income revised

The USDA has revised its estimate of how much money farmers across the nation will take in this year.

The good news is that the number went up. Net farm income is forecast at $87.1 billion, up $28.1 billion from 2006, and $29.7 billion above the 10-year average of $57.4 billion.

The previous net farm income record of $85.9 billion was set in 2004.

The value of total farm production is forecast to rise $47.7 billion to $323 billion this year. This includes a $23.5 billion increase in value of crop production and a jump of $20.4 billion for livestock. The remainder of the increase comes from the value of services and forest products.

But the picture is not that rosy, says Terry Franci, a senior economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation. Total farm expenses are up $222 billion, or 8.5 percent over last year, he said.

The price of fuel that farmers use to run their tractors and dry their corn costs 4.5 percent more than last year. Fertilizer prices are up 17 percent.

What does this mean for consumers?

"Despite slightly higher retail prices, U.S. consumers still spend only about 10 percent of their disposable income on food, less than citizens anywhere else in the world," Franci said.

Increasing exports

In another instance of favorable farm economics news, agriculture exports are expected to reach a record $79 billion this year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns announced last week.

Looking ahead, Johanns said exports should reach $83.5 billion next year, with increased sales across all agricultural product groups.

The forecasts eclipse the old record of $68.6 billion set last year.

"These export numbers, once again, demonstrate that U.S. agricultural products are in high demand around the world," Johanns said.

The United States also is a big customer for farm products produced in other parts of the world. Imports are forecast to reach $75 billion next year.

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