Monday, March 17, 2008

Pittsfield: Farmers brace for fertilizer, diesel fuel costs

Bangor Daily News

By Sharon Kiley Mack
Monday, March 17, 2008

PITTSFIELD, Maine - When it comes to this spring’s planting, Maine farmers are facing a double whammy: both the devil they know - increasing fertilizer costs - and the devil they don’t - rocketing fuel prices.

Farmers are watching diesel fuel prices carefully and have no way to predict where the gauge will stop when planting time arrives.

But higher fertilizer costs are something they are already paying. A ton of fertilizer that cost between $300 and $400 last spring will easily cost $1,000 this year — that’s about $500 an acre for a vegetable farmer, a 300 percent increase.

"Another 25 to 30 cents higher on fuel or fertilizer and we’ll be in a crisis situation," Maine Department of Agriculture Commissioner Seth Bradstreet said.

"It’s bad. Very bad," Spencer Greatorex, a certified crop adviser with Northeast Ag & Feed Alliance in Detroit, said. "And I don’t see it changing a lot. I’d like to tell you that next year the prices will go back to normal, but I don’t know what’s normal any more."

Charleston dairy farmer Richard Perkins, who plants 307 acres of corn to feed his herd, said prices have changed so fast between last fall and this winter that "I don’t have a firm grip on what it costs me to produce milk any more." But he added that it has never cost him this much in the 27 years he has been dairying.

Nitrogen that cost Perkins $180 a ton a few years ago is now going for $600 a ton. "It’s going to be a challenging year, to put it mildly," he said.

Mark Heddrick, the nutrient management coordinator for the Maine Department of Agriculture, not only advises Maine growers but has a diversified farm of his own in Union. He raises sheep, vegetables and flowers.

"My fertilizer costs will double this year," he said. "The bottom line is that I’ll be cutting back my production, a scenario that will be repeated across the state."

And in the end, he said, prices for all agricultural products will rise for consumers.

Bradstreet grows vegetables and potatoes in Newport and said the greater costs for his 60 acres will add costs on the consumers’ end.

"That sweet corn that cost $4.50 last year may cost $5 or $5.50 this summer," he said.

Heddrick said a number of factors have pushed the fertilizer costs upward: commercial fertilizers are petroleum based; fertilizer is very heavy, pushing transportation costs higher; and Russian potash mines were flooded, creating a scarcity of that key ingredient.

Greatorex said Midwest farmers growing crops for ethanol production are planting 8-9 million additional acres of crops, further increasing the demand for commercial fertilizer.

"Foreign trade also has a huge impact," he said. "China and other countries are starting to fend for themselves more and are buying up a lot of these agricultural supplies."

Greatorex said Maine farmers are trying to be more efficient by utilizing more manure. "Manure is not just a waste product any more," he said. "It is a valuable product."

In the Midwest, grain farmers are buying manure from large-scale livestock dealers. One livestock farmer in Ohio banked an additional $750,000 in income last year just by selling his cow manure to grain producers.

But as development crowds into former farmland, neighbors often rebel when farmers spread manure. Some extension agents say odor issues are their No. 1 complaint. A dairy farm that grows corn for cow feed can apply 15 to 20 tons of manure per acre, Heddrick said, and still have to supplement with commercial fertilizer.

Heddrick said farmers should do more soil testing to see exactly what the needs of their soil are and only apply what is required. "Efficiency is going to be key to survival," he said.

Bradstreet said many large farmers are switching crops.

"Canola is going for $700 a ton," he said. "These are not just cover crops any more. Now is the time that Maine farmers can actually see a profit on food grains. The problem is with the higher cost of inputs. They may make more money, but their net will be no different."

Exeter potato farmer Jeffrey Campbell said his costs have increased $175 an acre on the 370 acres he plants, a factor that will be a key role in his ongoing contract negotiations with Frito-Lay. "Everything trickles down, right to the wages that I pay my employees," Campbell said.

"I just don’t see how people are going to deal with this," Perkins said. "Everything is out of sight — fuel, tires, parts, equipment. Last month my fuel bill was $5,000, and that was just to heat the buildings enough to feed and clean. What’s that bill going to be when we hit the ground running in April and May?"


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