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Stuck in the starting blocks: Farmers idled by bad weather

Clark County farmer: ‘“I sit here a little worried.’

Ohio farmers are stuck on the sidelines because of cold temperatures and wet conditions and it comes during precarious economic times that has the farming industry already on edge.

Less than 1 percent of Ohio farmers have started planting crops this year and this week’s rains will delay planting for at least another week.

“It’s a stressful time for farmers. They’re sitting and waiting for the ground to warm up. The long winter has been tough for everyone and the snowfall we’ve had in April is adding to the trouble,” said Sam Custer, an Ohio State extension agent.

Adding to the worries is the talk of possible China tariffs on soybeans exported from the United States. China is the No. 1 importer of U.S. soybeans, one of the top-produced crops by Ohio farmers. Ohio is the ninth highest soybean-producing state.

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Clark County farmer, Brian Harbage, works on his farm equipment as he waits for the rain to stop so he can get in the fields to plant Tuesday, April 24, 2018. Bill Lackey/Staff

China has threatened tariffs on various exported U.S. products following the Trump administration’s decision to add tariffs to Chinese steel and aluminum imported into this country.

No action has been taken by China on the soybean tariffs, but the threat has caused soybean prices to drop.

“The talk of tariffs is aggravating. You’re talking about a country that imports around 60 to 70 percent of our soybeans. We don’t want to see the U.S. sitting on a pile of soybeans if China turns to South America for their imports,” said Brian Harbage, who operates a family farm in the South Charleston area.

The cold temperatures and snowfall in April has stopped soil temperatures from rising, Custer said. Until the ground warms up, he added, farmers will be stuck working on their equipment or polishing their tractors.

Soil temperatures in Darke County, one of Ohio’s top crop-producing counties, were around 43 degrees on Sunday. Farmers need those temperatures to be over 50 degrees for ideal planting conditions, according to Custer. The cool nights and lack of sun is not helping farmers.

April 15 is the date most farmers have on their calendars for the start of planting season. Custer said if farmers have to wait another week, it could spell trouble for crop yields for corn.

Across the country, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said farmers had planted 5 percent of this year’s corn crop by Sunday, compared to 15 percent of the crop by April 22 last year. Farmers likewise sowed just 2 percent of this year’s soybeans and 3 percent of spring wheat by April 22, compared to 5 percent and 21 percent of those crops respectively by that time last year.

“We’re not at a drop dead time by any means, but being stuck in the starting blocks has farmers worried,” Custer said.

The average temperature for April is five degrees below normal, according to Storm Center 7 chief meteorologist Eric Elwell, On top of that, the Miami Valley is threatening to make it into the top 5 on record for the highest snow levels in April.

“Temperatures shouldn’t be a factor going forward. The long-range outlook released from the Climate Prediction Center suggests that, while temperatures will stay below normal the rest of the month, the pattern will ease,” Elwell said.

Bill Lackey/Staff

Temperature fluctuations are expected over the next week to 10 days, going back and forth from the 50s to near 70 degrees. However, the threat for additional snowfall appears to be dwindling the rest of the month, Elwell said.

Harbage has not begun his planting yet and said he and other Ohio farmers will need at least a four-day stretch of sun and warm temperatures to get into the fields. Harbage, like most Ohio farmers, plants a 50/50 ratio of soybeans and corn.

“I sit here a little worried, but then I know we always get it done,” he said. “Some years you might work 15 hours a day to get the work done. If we have to, we’ll turn to 24-hour operation to get the work done.”

Farming even in the best of years is not stress free. “Once you do get the seed in the ground, then you have to worry about having the right temperatures for it to take off,” Harbage said with a laugh.

The USDA forecast earlier this month that soybean planting in 2018 would exceed corn planting for the first time in 35 years. Soybeans will cover 89 million acres this year, compared to 88 million acres for corn, the USDA said.

Plantings for both crops will decline from a year ago, the forecast said. The government’s spring wheat estimate topped all forecasts, with an expected 12.6 million acres, up 15 percent from last year. Last year, U.S. farmers planted 90.2 million acres of corn and 90.1 million acres of soybeans.

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