July 31, 2008

Farmers Pass on Rising Expenses

By Joe Napsha, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 31--For the past two years, Sewickley Township cattle farmer Regina Carpenter said she and her husband, Derwyn, have absorbed the rising costs of fuel and feed, but they can no longer afford to hold the line this year.

"This summer is the first year we were not able to hold back on raising prices. People don't realize how the cost of (diesel) fuel has affected all farmers," said Carpenter, who sells beef from the cattle the couple raise on their Shaner Valley Farm Inc. The couple, who raise about 45 cattle on their 92-acre Westmoreland County farm, grow the corn and hay feed for their animals.

As operating costs skyrocket, farmers are being forced to pass along the extra costs to buyers at farmers markets or to food processors and retailers when they can, agriculture experts say.

"It's been a huge challenge this year. The expenses are rising across the board, and most of the farmers have no control over the price they get" for their products, unless they are selling it directly to the consumer, said Mark O'Neil, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, a trade group representing 44,000 farmers and rural families in the state.

While the state's farmers are enjoying higher prices for their products such as corn, soybeans, wheat and dairy products, "a lot of what may be perceived as profit is eaten up" by the increase in expenses to operate the farm, O'Neil said.

Pennsylvania's agricultural industry is an important element of the state's economy, with 58,100 farms pumping $4.25 billion in revenue into the state in 2002, according to the latest statistics from the Department of Agriculture.

Farmers are hit with the rising price of diesel fuel to power tractors to plow the fields and the trucks to take livestock and produce to market, along with the higher cost of fertilizer and grain, said Gary Sheppard, director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Westmoreland County, which has about 1,200 farms.

The jump in diesel fuel has cost Bill Kaminsky twice as much this year to till the soil on his Wendel Spring Farm in Hempfield than it did last year. Kaminsky said it cost him $150 to drive his tractor over his field, compared to $75 last year. His tractor gets only one miler per gallon.

"The cost of feed has gone through the roof ... and it's just trickled down," to the fertilizer and plastic packaging, both of which are petroleum-based, Carpenter said at a farmers market outside the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

"We've had a major, major escalation in fertilizer costs," from about $300 a ton to $850 a ton, Sheppard said.

Farming in southwestern Pennsylvania is predominantly concentrated in the crops grown for animal feed, although there are some farmers growing fruits and vegetables for sale in markets and roadside stands, Sheppard said. To get that produce from the farmer's field to the family dinner table takes a considerable investment, he said.

"The amount of (financial) risk you have in that field ... is considerably higher than it was before," Sheppard said.

Farmers this season have been hurt by wet weather that has delayed cutting hay, Sheppard said. "Depending on the hay field, a good year is four or five cuttings," but some farmers are just doing their first cutting because the hay has been so wet, Sheppard said.

"They're losing the cutting of the hay, and the quality," Sheppard said.

The use of corn for fuel, in the form of ethanol, has given farmers more problems, said Paul Sarver of Hempfield, who grows organic fruits and vegetables on his 20-acre farm. The corn used for animal feed has gone up in price, and farmers planted corn instead of wheat, creating a wheat shortage, Sarver said.

"Everybody jumped on the corn bandwagon," Sarver said.

It's affected the number of vendors at some farmers markets, because some Somerset County farmers who used to sell their goods in central Westmoreland County are staying closer to home because of fuel costs, said Sarver, manager of the Farmers Market Association of Central Westmoreland.

The farmers' rising costs have hit the consumer in the pocketbook as well.

"We raised our prices a little bit, but it doesn't cover the (higher) costs," said Kaminsky, who grows corn, zucchini, fruit and other vegetables on about 11 acres of his 53-acre farm. Most of the produce Kaminsky raises is sold at farmers markets in central Westmoreland County, like the one that operates in Greensburg.


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