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Initial high hopes recede for corn, soybean harvest

The Baltimore Sun

One of the things I never liked about grain farming is that no matter how smart farmers might be or how hard they work, they have little control over their destiny.

This year is a good example of what I'm talking about. Things looked good back in June. Grain prices were high, the highest farmers had ever seen.

Rains were timely and plentiful and farmers were eyeing a bin-busting harvest.

"For Maryland farmers, things look great," Kevin McNew, a managing partner of Go Grain LLC, a commodity research firm in Bozeman, Mont., and an adjunct agriculture professor with the University of Maryland, said in late June after assessing the status of grain fields in Maryland.

He said 2008 could be the best year ever for state grain farmers.

Unfortunately, his predictions didn't hold up.

Mother Nature turned fickle, and a lack of rain during a critical part of the growing season took a hefty toll on crops in the field. At the same time, grain prices went down.

What started out to be one of the best years ever for state grain farmers has turned to an average, at best, harvest season, according to the latest crop production figures released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farms that were expecting to yield 130 bushels of corn from each acre planted will be lucky to supply 120 bushels.

According to the Maryland field office of the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, farmers are expected to harvest an average of only 121 bushels of corn from each acre planted. This is up from last year's 103 bushels per acre when crops were damaged by a severe drought, but well below the 142 bushels per acre farmers harvested in 2006.

The government forecasts total corn production in the state at 47.2 million bushels. This is down from 65 million bushels as recently as 2004.

The upper Eastern Shore appears to be particularly hard hit by the lack of rain this year. During a recent tour of that part of the state, I saw field after field of dried corn stalks where I thought farmers would be lucky to bring in 20 bushels of corn from each acre.

Soybean farmers fared a bit better, but their crop is not going to live up to earlier expectations. Soybean farmers benefited from the August rains associated with Tropical Storm Hanna, but the rains came too late for optimum benefit.

In August, the USDA was forecasting the state soybean harvest to yield 34 bushels per acre. But the government cut its soybean yield projection last month to 29 bushels per acre.

The government's latest reading, based on field conditions as of the first of the month, is that farmers will harvest 30 bushels of soybean from each acre planted. That would still be far short of the 43 bushels per acre harvested in 2004.

Total production is expected to come in at 14.7 million bushels when the harvest is complete. As recently as 2004, soybean production totaled 21.3 million bushels.

Corn and soybeans are Maryland's top grain crops. Most of the grain is sold to Eastern Shore poultry companies and made into chicken feed.

The price of corn went along with the slide in production estimates. Corn that was priced at $8 a bushel earlier in the growing season is now fetching slightly more than $5 a bushel.

The so-called small grains - wheat and barley - fared much better than corn and soybeans this year.

State farmers set a record yield for wheat this year - 73 bushels per acre. This tops the previous mark of 68 bushels set in 1997.

Wheat production totaled 13.14 million bushels, according to the USDA's final crop estimate for the small grains that are usually planted and harvested well before farmers turn to corn and soybeans.

The yield for barley was also a record, at 90 bushels per acre. This compares with the previous record of 87 bushels per acre harvested in Maryland in 2006. Total barley production is estimated at 3.15 million bushels.

Farmer education, resources day Nov. 8

The Maryland Small Farm Cooperative will host a farmer education and resource day Saturday, Nov. 8. The session will be held at the Frederick County Cooperative Extension office, 330 Montevue Lane. The class runs from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Topics covered will include environmental regulations, nutrient management applicator training, composting, regulations for on-farm food processing, biosecurity and other farm-related issues.

Tickets cost $10 and should be ordered by Oct. 27. Registration forms can be obtained from marylandsmallfarmcoop.org.

Participants receive two credit hours toward the state nutrient management program's continuing- education requirement.

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