In drought, farmer-to-farmer links will be more important than ever
Farmers who are suffering through the worst drought since 1988 - maybe even worse than that year - need to have a feeling that "we are not alone out there," said Wisconsin Farm Bureau president Bill Bruins, during a roundtable with farm reporters July 20.
"As a farmer, every morning when I get up I am thinking about the drought. Like other farmers across the state, I hope and pray for rain. It is difficult to watch our crops wilt away and hard to keep a positive attitude about our current situation."
But the state government, University Extension people, bankers and others are all saying that agriculture is too important to the economy of the state to watch it fold, he added.
Bruins said he looks at government help two ways - it's nice that government is concerned, but "I'm way too old and way to cynical to think that government can solve our problems."
The real solutions this year, he says, will come from farmer-to-farmer linkages.
With the number of livestock operations in the state and the number of corn fields withering away in the blistering drought, Bruins thinks salvaging the corn crop as livestock feed can be a win-win situation for everybody.
"It can mitigate some of the losses that are staring us in the face right now.
"Farmers are also wondering right now what to do with the corn crop. Should we leave it and see if we can harvest it as grain in the fall or should we harvest it for silage, and if so, when? What is the feed value of that silage and what is a fair price if you are buying and selling it? It is important for nutritionists and agronomists to work with farmers to answer those questions," Bruins added.
Right now, it is very important for farmers to reach out to their lenders and equally important for lenders to reach out to their farm customers to look at the financial issues and options for this year and next year, Bruins said.
"We need assurance from our lenders that they are going to work with us through this difficult time."
Given the expansiveness of this drought farmers must, above all, have some certainty going forward, Bruins said, so it is very important for the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a new Farm Bill.
"Now is not the time to play politics with agriculture's livelihood. Farmers need certainty right now and also for next year's planting decisions. We need to know how crop insurance will work in the Farm Bill, how dairy policy reform will impact our dairies and what disaster assistance programs will be in place."
To have the Farm Bill in limbo makes it extremely difficult to look forward, he said. Passing the measure "is the least the federal government can do at this time."
The rain that fell over some regions of the state last week and this week will buy some time for farmers to make decisions, said Farm Bureau's top lobbyist Paul Zimmerman.
He's encouraged by the farmer-to-farmer connections that are already being made through University Extension links that bring hay and feed sellers together with those who need to source feed.
"I'm optimistic farmers will do the right thing," he added, noting that corn growers should be able to see the value in potentially salvaging their crop by having a neighbor chop it for silage.
"That's the only way we get through this is to take that approach."
Bruins added that the proximity of many livestock operations to those barren corn fields in the state makes the situation a bit easier and he hopes that nutritionists and extension people can help farmers determine what that damaged corn is worth.
Bruins own dairy farm in Fond du Lac County has all summer been "30 miles south of the line where the rain is." He figured that at best he has a 60 percent yield potential on his corn.
"If we get some rain soon it could be better than that," he adds, but probably all the corn his family grows will be taken off for silage unless they can source some off the farm.
Every state and federal agency is doing what it can to help farmers in the drought, Zimmerman said.
The Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection is working through its Farm Center to put people together who can help each other. The Department of Natural Resources is allowing water permits for irrigation. The Department of Transportation is allowing oversize loads so farmers can haul more hay.
The Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority is making additional loan programs available to farmers, he said, and University Extension has developed resources to link farmers to each other.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) technical committee approved emergency grazing on Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land in 14 southern counties. Farmers must sign up at county Farm Service Agency (FSA) offices before they can make hay or graze.
It's certainly not a silver bullet, said Zimmerman, but it is "another tool in the toolbox."
Many people are comparing this year to 1988 and Bruins said he remembers getting through that year. "We got virtually no hay after the first crop and all winter we bought very expensive hay and bought corn."
Bruins said it's important that one segment of agriculture not get singled out for blame in this crisis - namely ethanol production.
"We don't want to be short sighted in taking a position in this crisis, pitting one sector against another. Ethanol plants have absolutely been a benefit to corn farmers," he said, adding that those energy plants will have "their own numbers to crunch" in the coming months.