State gets help for ailing crops: USDA offers farmers emergency assistance

Jeff Chorman with Chorman Spraying, LLC pilots a Turboprop Grumman AG-Cat over a corn field on Skeeter Neck Road near Little Heaven on Friday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

DOVER — Due to a difficult planting/growing season, the state has been granted an emergency disaster designation by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture (DDA).

“With United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s granting an emergency disaster designation for Delaware, farmers are able to apply for assistance, including loans, from the USDA Farm Service Agency, provided that they meet the eligibility requirements,” said DDA deputy secretary Kenny Bounds.

“Farmers must have purchased crop insurance on eligible crops to qualify for disaster assistance programs. Farmers have eight months from the date of the secretarial disaster declaration to apply for emergency loans. This is important because it allows farmers to take into account the full extent of production losses due to the torrential rains that occurred from April 2 through June 21, and then apply for assistance based on real data.”

According to the DDA, while time remains in the growing season, about 68 percent of the corn crop in the state is estimated to be in the “milk phase” of its development — compared to about 87 percent of corn last year at this time. A DDA crop conditions report as of last Sunday broke up the state’s corn crop as follows:

• Very Poor: 5 percent

• Poor: 27 percent

• Fair: 38 percent

• Good: 25 percent

• Excellent: 5 percent.

Heavy rains in April and May have hurt farmers this year, destroying several high dollar crops and continuing to threaten the yield of many others, said the DDA.

“A lot of corn was planted late because of wet conditions and when it was planted it sat without a lot of growth due to saturated soil,” said Mr. Bounds. “The wet conditions were followed by a drought and then subsequent wet conditions again. The cloudy conditions slow down transpiration and movement of nutrients up into the plant.”

The climate conditions have led to less healthy looking corn, but Mr. Bounds said the scope of the damage won’t be known until after the fall harvest is complete.

“As we drive around Delaware, I would describe the corn crop as spotty,” he said. “Some fields look great, others not good at all. We will be working with USDA-NASS to analyze the crop at the end of the year to determine how Delaware fared.

“We have to compare the initial plantings planned to what actually was planted and then harvested. There is no doubt we will have a decrease in the amount of acreage harvested versus planted, but the tell-tale will be the yield per acre.”

Poorly growing, immature corn outside Dover. According to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, about 68 percent of the corn crop in the state is estimated to be in the “milk phase” of its development — compared to about 87 percent of corn last year at this time.
Delaware State News/Ian Gronau

Out of the state’s two main grain crops, soybeans will perhaps fare better than corn, Mr. Bounds speculated.

“We had all of the flooding early in the season, saw some really hot days in the end of June and beginning of July and then we had the deluges that occurred during and around the state fair,” he said. “Generally, soybeans are later than usual but look better overall than corn.”

The DDA hopes the new emergency designation can help ease the burden many farmers may experience at harvest time.

“In a really hard year like Delaware is seeing with weather, price fluctuations and not knowing yield outcomes, having the ability to apply for assistance helps assure bills can get paid and the farmer can spread that loan out over seven years,” said Mr. Bounds.
“Beyond the loans, it helps bring attention and focus to the problem and encourages other lenders and service providers to work with their clients.”

The special designations have been common in the last several years.

“Since 2012, the state has received four USDA secretarial disaster designations, including 2012, 2013, 2016 and 2017,” said Mr. Bounds. “Some of these designations were for drought, with the most recent in 2017 for excessive rain from the end of July to the beginning of September.”

Response from the field

Planting and growing seasons have featured one poorly timed weather event after the next for the state’s farmers, according to Cory Whaley, University of Delaware agriculture extension agent for Sussex County.

“The season is still far from over, but we had a rougher than normal start,” he said. “The heavy rain in May and June kept farmers out of the fields and it hurt what was already planted. Then things got really hot and dry in early July during pollination, which is a really critical time for corn as far as producing ears and yield.”

Though more of the growing season remains and ideal weather in the coming weeks would help, Mr. Whaley speculates that the damage to corn yields specifically is likely already done.

“Most of the corn that was planted in the ideal window is in the gain-filling stage, so a lot of the yield is already made,” he said. “We might pick up a little extra with some sun and moderate rainfall, but probably not much. From what I’ve seen in Sussex County, our overall yield is going to be down.”

According to a USDA crop production forecast report on Aug. 1, Delaware is predicted to harvest 140,000 acres of corn compared to the 171,000 acres harvested in 2017. According to the data, state farmers averaged 189 bushels per acre in 2017 — the report forecasts an average of 186 bushels per acre of corn this year.

Seaford farmer Cory Atkins, who farms around 800 acres of corn, soybeans and vegetables, thinks the average will be far lower.

“I think too many non-irrigated acres of corn will end up yielding 30 to 40 bushels of corn and there won’t be enough acres yielding over 250 bushels per acre to drag that average up to 186,” he said. “If I had to guess, I’d say we’re probably going to land somewhere closer to 125 bushels per acres as a state average at this point.”

Mr. Atkins says farmers have been subject to multiple “replants” and they have many acres with corn so damaged they may not even try to harvest it.

“Personally, I think I’ll end up with about 50 to 60 percent of a crop,” he said. “There’s about 200 acres of corn that I’m not sure if we’ll even put a combine in this year. The heavy, early rainfall in May and June just never seemed to give up, things weren’t dry long enough to get into the fields.

“In early May there was a week where we got an inch or more a day, then there was a day in June where we got about 7 inches in 90 minutes. Once it did finally quit raining, it got really hot and dry for like three weeks — what did get planted had its roots saturated and didn’t build up the vigor to survive well.”

For his part, Mr. Atkins doesn’t think much of the emergency disaster designation.

“I’m not sure it’ll make a huge difference, it doesn’t really solve anything,” he said. “The average farmer is probably going to have a fairly tight relationship with a lender already. If I can’t pay my bills as it is, taking on more debt is just kicking the can down the road. Overall, it’s not as great as it sounds and to some extent I’m not fond of it because to the general public it sounds like farmers are getting a handout. It’s not like it’s a bailout.”

One lifeline many farmers will likely be tapping this year is crop insurance, suspects Mr. Atkins.

“For sure there are going to be a lot of claims this year,” he said. “In better years, you might lose out on a few bushels here and there, but filing a claim isn’t worth the paperwork, but this year I’m betting that everyone is going to collect and save any penny that they can get their hands on. The bills are going to get paid, but there won’t be a lot of working capital left over.”

Mr. Whaley noting that claims may even rise on irrigated acres.

“Based on what I’ve seen, I think our crop insurance claims are going to be definitely higher than they have been in the past few years,” he said. “Most years there are usually the most claims on dryland acres — non-irrigated — but this year we’ll probably see more irrigated acre claims than we have in a long time just because yield may not be there.”

Come harvest, both Mr. Whaley and Mr. Atkins will be setting their expectations low.

“I’m not sure yet, but these are probably some of the worst conditions going into fall since droughts in 2012,” said Mr. Atkins. “Overall, what’s left on the fields looks OK right now, but it’s doubtful that the yield is there. We’ll probably do better than 2012 yield wise, but I’d say this has been one of the rougher seasons in the last 4 to 6 years.”

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