Powhatan farmers negatively impacted by drought

Resident Billy Sifers stands in one of his corn fields in Powhatan County. The farmer and many like him were hit hard by a drought that affected the area in summer and early fall.

POWHATAN – Going months without any significant rainfall this summer and early fall placed a strain on farmers in Powhatan County that will likely be felt through 2020 and beyond.

After several weeks of no rain in Powhatan County in July, August, and September, the county was listed with a D2 (“severe drought”) rating on the United States Drought Monitor map. The prolonged period of drought lasted long enough to cause significant crop loss in the county, said Rachel Henley, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent in Powhatan.

Henley spoke to the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors on Oct. 28, asking members to support a resolution to petition Governor Ralph Northam to designate Powhatan County as a disaster area due to drought.

“A lot of folks think we’ve gotten rains so we shouldn’t be in a drought anymore, but unfortunately from an agriculture standpoint, the crop has been done for our summer crops, which includes soybeans, corn, pastureland and hay grounds,” she said.

Robert Harper, Virginia Farm Bureau grain merchandiser, said in a separate interview that pockets of the state had very different experiences this growing season. Comparing the state to “a really holey piece of Swiss cheese,” the 2019 growing season saw a little bit of everything all over Virginia. Some farmers got rain right when they needed it and grew record crops, while others kept missing out on the precipitation and slowly watched the drought situation worsen.

In Powhatan and some other localities around it, no rain in mid July was followed by several days reaching 98 to 103 degrees. While the heat didn’t stay at those levels, the lack of any significant amount of rain in the weeks that followed severely hurt farmers.

“Mid July is when people in the agriculture communities’ eyebrows started raising. It doesn’t take much for those folks to do that at that time of year, because basically if you don’t get an inch of rain a week, you are going backwards,” Harper said.

Surveying farmers from across the county, Powhatan had at least a 50 percent yield loss of crops, if not more, Henley said. More than 19,000 acres of corn, soybean, grass crops and other farm land have been adversely affected within the county at an estimated loss of over $1 million.

“That has been a significant loss to many of our farmers and producers across the state. Those that have to then feed their animals, hay supply has been shortened for this winter, which could potentially be a rough winter,” she said.

The board unanimously passed the resolution to petition the governor. If granted, the designation allows for low interest, emergency loans for producers.

But that measure isn’t going to help all the farmers looking at a loss because of the drought.

Billy Sifers of Powhatan is a grain farmer who farms between 800 and 1,000 acres. This was one of the driest years he has ever seen, especially late in the season. He said he didn’t really see any rain after July 3, and by the time some started coming, the growing season was done. Added to that, he had a huge problem with deer hitting his crops, and he estimated he lost 100 acres of soybeans just to the deer. All told, when the soybeans were harvested, he averaged about 15 bushels to the acre, he said. The same field last year ran between 50 and 60 bushels an acre.

Sifers said he is going to feel the real hurt in 2020 since he stores grain from one year to the next, selling it and using the proceeds to finance the fertilizer, seed, and everything else needed for the following year. With such a small yield in 2019, Sifers is worried about how he will pay for the operation in 2020.

“My big concern is next year. I don’t know how we will finance the crop next year,” he said.

The low interest loan connected to the state of emergency designation wouldn’t help him, he added, unless he was turned down by other banking institutions. He also has crop insurance, which will help get some of the seed money back, but “it cannot and will not pay for everything you have spent. It is better than nothing, but it ain’t a whole lot.”

“To be in this operation, to be a grain farmer, which we are, we have an investment that has been made – in machinery, equipment, land and everything else. There is nothing else you can do with it. You either keep farming or sell out and quit. That is all there is to it when you have this much money invested in equipment and land,” he said.

Poor yields

The impact on each individual farmer will vary depending on many factors: the kind of crops they plant; when they were planted; how many times a year they harvest those crops; if they are feeding animals, and if they subsidize their farming operation through other jobs, Harper said.

For instance, for many farmers who plant corn, the average crop was almost done by the middle of July, he said. The lack of rain hurt the growth toward the end, but it didn’t have as big of an impact countywide as it did on the soybean crops, which took a harder hit.

In 2018, many farmers who grew hay were able to get four good cuttings of the crop, he said. This year, the first cutting was good and some people made a “halfway decent” second cutting, but after that, things pretty much went downhill and nobody made a third or fourth cutting.

Collin Wolfe of Powhatan, who farms around 800 acres with cattle and hay, talked about the three cuts of hay he usually harvests. He said he had a pretty good first cutting, but the drought caused his fields to become so dry and dusty that he skipped over quite a bit of the land he usually cuts and didn’t really get a second or third cutting.

“Usually on a regular year I will finish my first cutting and go right back into the second cutting of the fields I mowed early. This year, we had a month and a half where I didn’t have any hay to cut because I had finished my first cut and the second cutting just wasn’t growing. We had about a month and a half where we weren’t making any production,” he said.

This year he made half the amount of round bales and square bales as he did in 2018, Wolfe said. Usually about 90 percent of the hay he grows is sold as a cash crop. The only reason he isn’t more worried is because he and his wife own a trucking company that will help pay the bills. He also talked about baling cornstalks for feed this year as a way to make up for some of his losses on hay.

Vernon Moyer of Powhatan said his soybean crop was about half of the yield he and his dad, David, normally get even though all of their costs were the same. They will store the crop this winter and expect to get much less income when they sell it in March 2020, which will affect their cash reserves.

He said he thinks it was enough of a crop to cover what they need, but they will have much less cushion than normal. The father and son farm land in Powhatan, Goochland and Cumberland counties, and thankfully some efforts did better than others.

“You put a lot of effort and time and money into putting your crop out. It is discouraging when it doesn’t produce like it could. But I always enter the growing reasons with an attitude of gratefulness for the rain that does come. Nobody is forcing me to farm so I am thankful for the rains that have come this year,” he said.

Long winter ahead

Cattle farmers in the area saw their pastures play out well ahead of schedule, which meant they had to begin supplementing the cows’ diets with hay as early as 90 to 100 days before they normally start. If their hay didn’t come in as expected, the proposition of having to buy more hay, especially when there is a shortage in the area, could become so expensive that they have to sell the cattle because they can’t afford to feed them.

That creates more problems as too many cattle being offloaded at the same time floods the market and drives down the price farmers can get for them, he said.

“We are not really going to know the full effects of how that is going to play out until we get into March and April, before people turn cattle out into grazing systems and they are still trying to buy hay,” Harper said.

Wolfe said he normally doesn’t start feeding hay to the 12 cows he has until the middle of November, but this year he began putting hay out on Aug. 1. Those 12 cows go through roughly a bale of hay every day or two, meaning he will feed them about 60 or 70 extra bales of hay he could have sold.

“I have actually been turning people away. Usually I have hay all the way through the winter into March to sell to people for horses, cattle, goats, whatever, and I have actually been turning people away for the last month or so just because I have to make sure I keep enough hay back for my cows,” he said.

In the face of a higher demand for hay juxtaposed against a shortage of the crop, some producers will demand higher prices now or hold onto the hay until farmers are desperate during the winter and pay an even higher price, Wolfe said. He committed to not doing that with the hay he did sell, both because he has regular customers he doesn’t want to take advantage of and he didn’t want to hurt other struggling farmers.

“I am not going to say I don’t agree with it, because it’s business. But I am just not going to do that with my business because I look at the longterm. If you start jacking the price up on people that are buying several hundred round bales a year, chances are they are not going to come back to you the following year,” he said.

Moving forward

There is so much more planning ahead that has to go into farming than people often realize. After Ernest Hobson, a cattle and hay farmer in Powhatan, couldn’t harvest a second cutting of hay this year, he recognized that he and other farmers were becoming increasingly worried about the situation.

On a good year, he can cut about 300 to 350 rolls of hay on the land he farms. This year, he estimates he cut about 200 rolls for the whole year. Most of the hay he grows is to feed the 56 cows he has, which can consume about 16 rolls a week, he said.

Hobson said he is fortunate to still have some hay left from the 2018 harvest, and he is hoping the combined totals will carry him through the winter.

But he still wanted to be proactive about ensuring a better season in 2020, so last week he renovated about 50 out of the 140 acres he farms, which he hopes will be a big boost for his first cut of hay in the new year. The process of renovating a field is labor intensive and expensive, involving tilling the land, testing the soil, applying needed nutrients, and basically “starting all over again” with the field, he said. With the fertilizer he needed to enrich the 50 acres totaling about $4,000 and another $600 spent on feed, the process is too expensive for him to do all at once. He is hoping the renovated 50 acres will provide a good start to the year, and he will do the rest as he can afford and as the fields need it.

Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.

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