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Lack of rain stifles corn

| Sunday, July 22, 2007

Homegrown corn is starting to sprout at area farm stands. But the lack of steady rainfall this year is stunting some of its growth.

When the rain comes in sporadic surges and leaves the ground dry for days in between, the yield is going to suffer.

"We had three-fourths of an inch of rain yesterday, but we need about two more," said Harold Foertsch, owner of Har-Lo Farms in Jefferson Township, Butler County. "A long, slow rain is what we need. Last year was a perfect growing season for corn."

Foertsch said there has been a lot of variety in the crop yield this year in the region. For instance, near the city of Butler, it's worse than in Winfield.

Therese Pajer, owner of Pajer Farm Market in Buffalo Township, said her farm has been growing about the same amount of corn as last year.

"It came a little later this year. We didn't have a lot of rain," she said. "The humidity has kept it going, though."

She said the corn, which she is selling for $4 a dozen, is reaching the heavy production point in the summer.

John and Gerry's Fruit Market near the New Kensington Bridge charges $3 for a dozen ears of local corn.

Ethanol and feed corn

The demand for ethanol as a fuel is causing some farmers to plant feed corn across the country, but Valley farmers don't seem to be among them.

Ethanol is a biofuel that is mixed with gasoline and produced from crops such as corn. Unlike the sweet corn that people eat, ethanol is derived from field corn, which is used as livestock feed.

But the costs associated with growing feed corn are rising, and that is driving some farmers away.

Boyd Baker, a South Buffalo farmer, decided against growing field corn this year because of the cost.

"Corn price is at the point where you could buy it as cheaply as you could raise it," he said.

He said the price of seed, fertilizer, pesticide spray and oil to prepare the fields was becoming prohibitive.

Boyd did not regret his plan -- even when he saw corn's price rise to a high of $4-per-bushel. It is currently around $3.40 per bushel.

"The profit isn't that great for all the work and equipment you need," he said. "I don't need a lot of corn for cattle, not as much as a dairy farmer would.

"If you need it for necessity, you have to grow it, but if you can get away with not using it, you'll probably be better off not growing it."

This year, U.S. farmers planted 92.9 million acres of corn, a 19 percent increase over 2006, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service report released in late June.

According to the July 15 Pennsylvania crop progress report, the state's corn was doing well, with 14 percent in excellent condition and 42 percent in good condition.

Phil Flynn, a senior market analyst at Alaron Trading and Options in Chicago, said there is enough market demand for continued investment in biofuels.

"Obviously $3.40 (per bushel) is far cry from $4, but demand for gasoline and oil continue to be strong, so the ethanol craze isn't going to go away overnight," he said.

"We're going to grow an awful lot of corn this year. If we're making ethanol for Americans, it grows in both red and blue states, it's a political issue.

"Corn probably isn't the most efficient crop for ethanol, but sugar is harder to grow in the United States and one of the ideas is to have a domestically-grown crop."

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