Ohio farmers face huge losses following poor growing season

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Ohio farmers face huge losses following poor growing season

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

Ohio farmers face more than half a billion dollars in losses as the annual fall harvest — delayed by record rainfall in the spring and a dry growing season — begins in the next month.

A Dayton Daily News examination found the poor conditions could cost Ohio farmers around $528.4 million this year when combining losses from unplanted acres, yield drops, and the change in prices for crops in the field and still stored in grain bins from last year. And that’s after the $352 million in prevent plant insurance and federal disaster payments expected to be paid to Ohio farmers this year, according to Ohio State University agriculture economist Ben Brown.

Without those payments, Ohio farmers would have faced $880 million in losses.

“It’s getting serious business now,” said Clark County farmer Brian Harbage, a seventh-generation farmer of 28 years. “I’ve got more anxiety every day now than I’ve ever had in my entire farming career, and I don’t get too worked up about anything too often.”

Brian Harbage in his Clark County soy bean field Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Harbage said this has been the worst growing season he's seen since he's been farming. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Brian Harbage in his Clark County soy bean field Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Harbage said this has been the worst growing season he's seen since he's been farming. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Almost every crop will be a couple weeks behind in harvesting, Harbage said. Other farmers in Darke, Butler, Green and Clinton counties agreed: this harvest season will be a long one.

Some of the earlier plantings and other fields that have died because of the droughts that dried out crops before they matured have been harvested, Harbage said. But the yields are “worse than expected in our neighborhood,” he said.

While the average corn yield in Ohio this year is expected to be around 160 bushels per acre — which is already lower than the 187 bushels in 2018 and 177 bushels in 2017 — some early harvests are pulling 90 bushels, Harbage said.

“I would expect that hopefully it will get better, but when the first stuff that gets harvested isn’t very good, you don’t get very optimistic,” he said.

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Record delays

Growers across Ohio are expected to harvest 710,000 fewer acres of corn and 810,000 fewer acres of soybeans after the worst planting season on record, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. One in seven acres went unplanted, the worst since the USDA began tracking in 2007.

More than 14 inches of rain fell in Dayton between April and June, the typical planting months for soybeans and corn. In the average year only 12.9 inches had land.

While most farmers usually have all their crops in fields by Memorial Day, farmers across the state were still planting as they approached final deadlines to apply for prevent plant insurance in mid-June.

Some had luck in mid-April during a dry spell, but after that, many area farmers struggled to find a long enough period without rain to get into fields for planting. Even acres that were planted often weren’t sprayed, fertilized or replanted in areas where the rains flooded out crops that were planted early.

In the face of weakened production, soybean farmers are also facing some the worst prices they’ve seen in a decade. In July, the average price was $8.37 per bushel, a 37 percent decline from the $13.20 peak in July 2011.

Those farmers facing uncertainty are starting to collect on financial aid programs surfacing at both the state and federal levels just weeks before harvest is expected to start. Some area farmers got their first payment of trade tariff aid through the federal Market Facilitation program earlier this month; new details of a federal disaster fund were revealed last week; and the state treasurer is trying to help farmers through loan interest rate reductions.

But all of that may not be enough.

“This is just going to help them survive. There’s nothing that’s going to help them make any kind of a profit this year,” said Ty Higgins, spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau. “But the goal of the insurance program and the goal of the Market Facilitation program is to keep our farmers in business…Obviously it’s the backbone of Ohio — agriculture being the number one industry in the state. And we need all of our farmers big, small, medium, to continue to do what they do, because without them, our economy would struggle greatly in quick time.”

Brian Harbage shows some of the soy beans in his Clark County farm field Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Harbage said this has been the worst growing season he's seen since he's been farming. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Brian Harbage shows some of the soy beans in his Clark County farm field Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019. Harbage said this has been the worst growing season he's seen since he's been farming. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

Disaster funds

Federal disaster relief funds were approved Tuesday for Ohio's farmers who need help offsetting the losses during the planting season, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ohio farmers who lost 15 percent of their acres could begin applying for the disaster funds last week, according to a statement from U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

“Historic rains across Ohio this spring resulted in a record number of unplanted acres, late planting, and significant uncertainty for farmers across large parts of the state,” Brown wrote. “I encourage eligible Ohio farmers to apply for these disaster funds, so they can get the relief they need.”

The funds are part of the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus through the Disaster Spending bill signed into law in June. Farmers who weren’t able to plant their fields, whether insured or not, can apply for the funds in eligible counties including Butler, Darke, Greene, Hamilton, Miami, Montgomery and Warren.

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Uncertainty still looms

But many farmers still aren’t sure if they’ll get any relief from the money. The $3 billion that will be doled out across the nation was originally only planned to cover disasters in 2018, OSU’s Ben Brown said. There was no additional funding added to the program when it was expanded to aid 2019 disaster losses as well, he said.

Farmers with 2018 losses will see the money first, getting 100 percent of the planned payments. Ohioans who took prevent plant insurance in 2019 will get a shot at the money next followed by other farmers who planted fields but face significant revenue drops from potentially poor yields, Ben Brown said. The 2019 payments will only be 50 percent of the total, according to the website set up for the program.

Farmers who get a prevent plant insurance payment could possibly receive an additional 10 percent of that payment from the WHIP+ funds, according to a website. An additional 5 percent will be given to farmers who purchased the harvest price option.

But the details aren’t as clear for other farmers who face losses because of the heavy rainfall on their planted fields. Those farmers could be eligible for aid determined by coverage amount, losses and what is called a WHIP factor, but that factor hasn’t been decided yet, “Ben Brown said.

“I think they are trying to figure out how much money is going to be left; They’re working on it. That’s why the 2019 payments are only 50 percent,” Ben Brown said. “There’s only $3 billion in the pot to disperse, so there is some concern that there’s going to be more people qualifying than what they have money for.”

The money may not even stretch beyond 2018 disaster relief, he said, adding that until a check is in a farmer’s pocket its not guaranteed.

“They’re trying to come up with the rules after the fact,” Harbage said. “If it comes out that you had to take prevented planting, they’re punishing us that tried.”

Meanwhile Miami Valley farmers still aren’t sure what their fields look like except for around the edges, said Gail Lierer, a Butler County farmer. And they also don’t know how prices will fare over the next year because of factors ranging from the yields to the trade war.

The trade war that’s been impacting prices for more than a year also still isn’t sorted out.

“We can always hope, but I just don’t know, depending on the tariffs, how it’s going to turn out. We’ve got a little ways to harvest and maybe things will get better, but I just don’t know,” Lierer said.

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Tariff relief

Some area farmers got their first payments earlier this month from a market facilitation program designed to make up for the loss in revenue farmers are facing because of the trade war. China has traditionally purchased about 35 metric tons a year, which dropped to nearly zero as the trade war heightened, Ben Brown said.

Over the last couple of weeks soybean sales to China have been picking up, and the nation bought 600,000 tons of soybeans earlier this week — the biggest purchase since at least June.

The tariff payments are based on the amount of pain the trade war has inflicted on each county. Farmers get a dollar value per acre depending on the county they live in, paid in three installments. But only the first payment of 50 percent, which some farmers have already received, is guaranteed.

Area farmers will get between $69 and $83 per acre, with Darke and Champaigne counties on the low end and Clinton County on the high end. Many farmers expect to get the second payment as well, but the third payment is one they’re all watching the trade war closely to see if they’ll get, Mason said.

“It for sure is going to help us, but with the cost of everything, what our inputs are, those guys aren’t going to have a lot of fat. You’ve got to live on something,” Mason said. “I don’t think it’s going to push them to where their going to be going out and buying new trucks.”

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Help with loans

Ohio Treasurer Robert Sprague reopened the Ag-LINK program to help farmers and agribusinesses in Ohio get a 2 percent interest rate reduction on operating loans up to $150,000. Local farmers can apply through Nov. 15.

“That’s pennies to a large operation,” Harbage said. “People are going to have to carry their operating notes. Normally they would pay them off here this month and next month because they’re taking in their incomes. But this year they’re probably not going to be able to pay the entire amount off. A reduction in interest will certainly help…but it’s only for $150,000 so it just doens’t carry much weight in the numbers that most farmers are dealing with.”

Farmers can also take advantage of the ReEnergize Ohio program that could reduce existing small business loan rates by 3 percent on loans up to $550,000 for storm damage building and equipment repairs. The GrowNow program can also reduce interest rates by 3 percent on loans up to $400,000 if businesses are committed to creating at least one full-time or two part-time jobs in Ohio for every $50,000 borrowed.

A better fix would be to figure out how to make inputs go down, said Butler County Farmer Dave Lierer. The cost of fertilizer keeps going up and when normal gasoline drops, diesel doesn’t follow, he said.

The Lierers warned that prices at grocery stores are likely to go up, starting with meat followed by box cereal and bread. Farmers also won’t have as much money to spend within their local communities this year.

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By the numbers

$528.4M: Loss in Ohio farm revenue

710,000: Fewer acres of corn planted

810,000: Fewer acres of soybeans planted