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Wednesday, 02 January 2008 00:00

A tough farming year

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

“Overall, it’s been a really tough year for farming,” said Jackson County farmer William Shelton as he reflected back on 2007.

“It’s one for the history books,” agreed Bill Skelton, director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension in Haywood County.

 

Drought, market conditions and fuel costs all came to a head this year, making 2007 one of the most difficult years in recent history for Western North Carolina farmers.

All about the drought

The extreme dry spell that gripped the Southeast was one of the biggest newsmakers in 2007. The worst drought in 118 years threw parts of the region into a state of panic, sparked calls for water conservation, and wreaked havoc on WNC’s livestock and trout farmers.

“I’ve been in the cattle business practically all my life, and I’ve never seen it as bad as it was this year,” said Haywood County livestock farmer Neal Stamey.

A severe hay shortage caused by a lack of rain forced cattle farmers around the state to sell off the cows they couldn’t feed, subsequently flooding the market and driving cattle prices down. Help came in the form of federal aid and grants, but it was too late for the many cattle farmers who had to chalk up the year as a total loss.

The drought also lowered stream flows, serving a devastating blow to the region’s trout farmers.

“North Carolina is number two in the nation in trout production, and the drought has caused stream flows to fall far below normal. This has really hurt the trout producers,” said Skelton.

Western North Carolina is 15 inches below normal rainfall, and forecasts are calling for a dry winter.

“If it stays dry, it can continue to make things worse,” Skelton said.

According to Skelton, the drought wasn’t the only unforgiving weather pattern.

“The drought is currently all the headlines, but the year actually started out with that freeze on Easter weekend —a severe freeze that did damage to a number of crops, so we got off to a bad start with that,” Skelton said. The freeze was solely responsible for killing off nearly 80 percent of the region’s apple crop.

Too many tomatoes

While cattle farmers grappled with a dire hay shortage, tomato farmers faced an opposite problem — an oversupply of tomatoes on the market.

To make money on tomatoes, Shelton explained, farmers rely on the failure of other growing regions.

“Here in Western North Carolina, we compete with the eastern shore of Virginia, Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio. A lot of regions come in with tomatoes at the same time that we do — not to mention California and now more and more Mexico,” Shelton said.

Turns out, every tomato-growing region Shelton named had a fantastic growing year — which was good news for individual farmers, but bad news for the market.

Because there were so many tomatoes, explained Haywood County tomato farmer Skipper Russell, brokers were picky about which ones got to market. This resulted in literally tons of extra tomatoes, which had to be disposed of.

Livestock and trout farmers affected by the drought qualified for federal disaster aid — but tomato farmers did not. This is because disaster relief payouts are based on lost yield, rather than lost money.

“We had a terrible tomato market this year because of oversupply, so we had a disaster year financially, even though we had a bumper crop,” Shelton said.

The increase in the number of imports coming into the United States isn’t helping market conditions either. Farmers are being forced to compete with cheaper produce from other countries, and are finding themselves essentially helpless in stopping the flood of imports.

“There’s more imported stuff coming in now than there’s ever been before. All these commodity brokers — they might have a cargo box full of mushrooms that they want to ship to the U.S. and the U.S. might have a cargo box full of cars they want to ship to China; but the commodity brokers, they just see a cargo box for a cargo box,” Russell said.

Buying local

In an ironic twist, Shelton suggested that the increase in the number of imports might actually help to stem them.

“I guess the downside is that it has become increasingly difficult for small farmers to compete on this global scale because they lack the buying power, but the upside is people are starting to see through this corporate food model,” he said.

Buying local is becoming increasingly important to many Americans.

“Right now in surveys, when people are asked about the number one thing they are looking for in their food, local has moved to the top of the list,” Shelton said.

There still seems to be a disconnect, however, between the desire to buy locally and actually being able to do it. Russell and other tomato farmers in Haywood County learned this the hard way this year when they failed to secure a large buyer for the tomatoes being grown and promoted as part of a new Buy Haywood marketing program.

“The biggest problem we’re facing right now is the local grocery stores not supporting us — none of them are. To get into this market, we’d probably have to give them away,” Russell said.

The lack of a large-scale buyer didn’t deter participants in the Buy Haywood program, which will return next season. Still, until grocery stores and shoppers demand local produce, farmers will lose money, time and crops in attempts to supply to local vendors.

“There’s a potential bright spot or bright future for local markets and for local products. The whole challenge is to find that niche and meet that demand, to sort of coordinate it to where there’s an adequate supply of local foods instead of a glut,” Shelton said.

Shelton said in tough years like this, it’s more important than ever for farmers to plan ahead.

“You have to be a good enough manager to when you do hit a windfall, you have enough savvy to spread that money out to ensure you can stay in business during lean years,” he said.

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