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Wheat Harvest Hurt by Rainfall
Md. Farmers Deal With Fungi

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 8, 2009 10:12 AM

The frequent downpours of rain from May into late June -- and the cool and overcast conditions that followed -- drenched the region's grain crops, leaving them susceptible to damaging fungi and farmers with diminished profits, agriculture experts say.

The fungi, known as vomitoxins, thrived in the dampness and spread across the region. Grain farmers from Maryland to North Carolina reported crops with too high a fungi count to be sold for flour -- the market in which they could make the most money -- and, in some cases, too high to be used for animal feed, which farmers sell at a heavily discounted rate.

For a smaller number of farmers, the fungi count reached a level at which the only option would be to try to use the grain for seed next season, said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Earl F. "Buddy" Hance.

Maryland farmers noticed a problem with the crops about a month ago, said Sue DuPont, a department spokeswoman. The state chemist's office then began distributing test kits to farmers across Maryland. Increased vomitoxin counts have been found across the state, with the bulk of them reported in Southern Maryland, according to University of Maryland agriculture extension agents.

A multitude of cases has been reported in North Carolina, where farmers were also at risk of losses because of the vomitoxin, Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler said in a statement.

Hance said the vomitoxin was an unexpected problem that he had never experienced as a wheat farmer.

Although officials here have little experience with vomitoxins brought about by an overabundance of rain, the problem is not unprecedented in the United States. Last year, grain farmers in the Midwest, Kansas especially, faced a fungi plague after heavy rainfall, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Like the Midwest in 2008, the Washington area in 2009 had a much higher than normal amount of rainfall, according to National Weather Service measurements. In May, 8.05 inches of rain fell, compared with 4.23 inches a year before. In June, 5.86 inches of rain fell; that figure was 2.73 inches for 2008.

Jamie Jamison, a wheat farmer in Poolesville in Montgomery County, said the poor conditions this season follow a healthy harvest the previous season.

"Last year, they all had perfect wheat. No problem," Jamison said of grain farmers in the region. In 2009, however, "it's just been the most difficult year."

Unlike other farmers who will be taking a loss and will depend on crop insurance to make up the difference, Jamison said he took an unusual approach that paid off. He invested in a grain drier and harvested his wheat early. Because of it, he was able to sell his wheat for flour -- the most lucrative market.

Many others weren't nearly as successful. Herb Reed of the University of Maryland agriculture extension in Calvert County said the fungus left many crops with a low test weight.

The ideal weight for a bushel, which is measured by the density of the kernel, is 60 pounds, he said. Once the pounds per bushel fall below the mid-50s, the wholesalers begin to reduce the price. If that weight falls too low, a crop could be rejected.

In order to avoid rejection, many farmers have to mix healthy wheat with a low vomitoxin count in with the other wheat, Reed said. Jamison said the other option would be to pay to have the wheat cleaned. But the alternatives "get fairly expensive," he said.

Pamela King, an extension agent in Calvert County, said having a wet season "creates an entirely different set of problems than if we have a dry one."

"Will it do them terminal damage?" King said of the vomitoxin. "We hope not. Farming is a very risky business, and that's one of the risks."

Hance, a fourth-generation farmer in Port Republic in Calvert, said farmers have to "just roll with the punches." But he has a concern larger than one year's harvest: If farmers cannot make a living in agriculture, they could flee the business.

"We hope our farmers are profitable," Hance said. "It's the only way we can maintain the open spaces in Maryland."

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