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Wet weather hurting Vermont's dairy farmers

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Posted on June 15, 2006 |
By John S. McCright and Cyrus Levesque



ADDISON COUNTY — Many people have been glad to see a break in the rain that has seemed almost constant over the last month. But for those who till the soils and milk cows the wet weather has combined with depressed milk prices and high fuel costs to create what some are referring to as a perfect storm for swamping Vermont’s dairy industry.

Gov. James Douglas this week called for federal disaster assistance to aid dairy farmers and said he would convene a special dairy summit by the end of the month to see what more could be done.

“Low milk prices, high fuel and energy cost and poor crop, or in some cases destroyed crops, due to extended spring rains, are contributing to what is now a clear crisis situation for Vermont's dairy farmers,” Douglas said on Tuesday.

The three members of Vermont’s congressional delegation also this week sent a letter to President Bush urging him to stop blocking aid for dairy farmers,

Vermont typically gets 40 inches of rain a year. But during May, 7.1 inches fell at the National Weather Service station in Burlington, which beat the record for May (1983) by nearly an inch.

The muddy fields have kept many farmers from getting a corn crop in on time and from harvesting the first cut of hay. Those who haven’t got corn in yet will be forced to plant varieties that mature in only 75 days (instead of the normal 100 days), which will reduce yields significantly.

Craig Miner, Addison County Executive Director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency, said corn yields could be reduced by 5,000 tons per acre, resulting in a loss of about $3,190,000 in farm revenue in Addison County alone.

The nutrient value of the hay crop has suffered as plants sit in the fields converting their energy into seeds that fall to the ground. As a result the nutrient value of much of the hay yet to be harvested will be too low to feed to dairy cattle, which need a lot of energy to create milk, Miner said.

“The bottom line is a ton of hay that might have been worth $130 a ton in nutrient value will only be worth $60,” Miner said. “Farmers can’t feed that crop to milk cows and they have to buy better feed for their animals.

“Losses in hay will be similar to corn,” Miner continued, “and there is four acres in hay for every acre in corn in this county. You do the math.”

“It’s had a very negative effect on farmers,” said Addison County Farm Bureau President Harvey Smith, of the weather. A retired dairy farmer and state representative, Smith  of New Haven is a member of the Governor’s Dairy Task Force and still raises crops. “This has been one of the longest wet periods (of rain) I can remember.”

On June 13, Gov. James Douglas formally asked the United States Department of Agriculture to declare Vermont an agricultural disaster area, which is necessary for farmers to receive direct financial aid from the USDA. His office is also organizing a summit to discuss how to help farmers in the near term.

Wet weather slows down farming in a number of ways. The heavy machinery needed for some activities like spreading manure cannot be operated without damaging soft, wet ground. Low temperatures often accompany wet weather, which slows or stunts the growth of many plants. And some crops, like corn, cannot be planted at all in wet soil because the seeds will rot before they have a chance to germinate.

John Roberts, a dairy farmer in Cornwall, doesn’t rely on corn. Even so, his farm has suffered from the weather in other ways. He has been able to complete part of his first cut, but “it’s not been easy, and it has been expensive,” he said.

He also hasn’t been able to spread manure yet because heavy machinery can’t safely be used on soil as wet as his grounds, and fewer crops have been ready for harvesting than usual.

Smith’s farming has been delayed by the weather as well. “I would say (farmers) are probably 20 to 25 percent planted… and there’s quite a bit that will have to be replanted,” he said. Normally, Smith added, almost everything would be planted by this point.

Jim Bushey, co-owner of Bourdeau Brothers, a seed and farm supply store in Middlebury, said that the bad weather will have repercussions long after the weather clears up.

Most of the year’s crops will suffer. Corn planted later will have to mature earlier and will have less nutritional content, Bushey said. And anything already cut has been stored wet, which preserves fewer nutrients and can rot quicker.

And if cows have worse feed, it will affect the quality and quantity of milk produced throughout the year.

Even though the weather has cleared up over the past few days, many farms are still not ready yet for their planting. According to Smith, it will take at least five to 10 days after rain stops before the ground will have dried enough for planting.

It’s not just farmers who are being hurt economically. Bushey also said that the weather has combined with other negative factors to seriously hurt the agricultural industry as a whole.

BEYOND THE WEATHER

Milk production historically has increased steadily but demand has risen more slowly, resulting in a drop in prices of about 20 percent since September 2005. And prices for supplies and equipment have risen, partly due to increases in the cost of fuel.

Any of these three factors by themselves might cause lean times for farmers. All at once, they might cause a crisis. “It’s kind of a triple-whammy here,” Bushey said. “I’ve never seen this series of events at the same time.”

More businesses have been affected than farmers themselves, according to Smith. “This isn’t just about dairy farmers or other farmers, it’s about the agricultural infrastructure in the area,” he said.

Bushey agreed. Stores like his and many others have had much less business than usual as farmers have not needed their product yet or try to cut costs in general.

“It will ripple down through the whole economy,” he said.

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