Farmers Hit By Weather, Tarriffs

Sep 27, 2018

P. J. Haynie takes a call from one of his fields.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

First came torrential rains, then record heat, then more rain. Add the tariff battle with China and farmers are having a tough year.

Virginia's Northern Neck is one region taking a hit.

It's harvest time and farmers are navigating combines before the next rain. Talk to any Tidewater area farmer and they'll tell you farming is the lifeblood for rural communities that dot the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Most grow corn and soybean mainly sold to Purdue.

If you've ever picked up a Farmer's Almanac you already know weather is everything to a farmer. P. J. Haynie chairs the National Black Growers Council. He calls 2018 one for the record books. "This spring just after planting corn we received, some farms, 8 to 10 to 13 inches of rain. A lot of the fertility just leached through the soil," Haynie notes. "We don't typically get rainfall in as large amounts as we've had this year."

Trent Jones, the local Agricultural Extension Agent for Northumberland and Lancaster Counties and a recent graduate of Virginia Tech says corn hates wet feet. "Flooding for a period of time is okay. But corn roots do need oxygen to survive," he says. "So, you're going to see a lot of die-back in those areas where you have ponding within the fields, which we did see this year as you were driving down the road. You could see areas that were just drowned out. Killed."

After the spring rain, it got dry and hot. Record-breaking hot in some locations.

Trent Jones holds last year's (left) and this year's corn to show the difference record heat made in yields this year.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

"Heat and moisture play a big part in actually filling this cob," Jones says as he holds out two ears of corn each about 8 inches long.

One is full, with near-perfect rows of kernels all the way to the end. It's from last year when weather was just right.

The other cob is from this year. It has rows of kernels that suddenly wither to nothing two inches from the top.  "So, because of the heat, lack of rain out there that corn cob did not fill the majority of the end of the cob," Jones says. "So you're losing yield there."

Even before all the extreme weather, President Trump announced his retaliatory tariffs against China. Commodities are taking a big hit, says Extension Agent Jones.  "We're looking at prices right now that are certainly not what farmers want to see."

P. J. Haynie says it has a ripple effect from the companies that provide farming equipment to older farmers who are looking at retirement, rather than taking on millions in loans knowing the tariffs may have long-term effects on commodity prices. "We've watched our soybean prices plummet over $2 a bushel in the last 90 days. As a farmer," Haynie says, "we can't stand those types of hits. Farmers are going to really have to sharpen their pencils and do a lot more budgeting and projections for next year knowing that prices have suffered significantly."

Corn seedlings earlier this year after a heavy spring rains.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Weather and tariffs isn't just a Virginia problem. "I text friends across the country and just share what's happening in your area," Haynie says. "From friends in North Carolina who recently suffered the flooding down there. There are guys who've lost their whole corn crop that fell over because of the wind. Their whole cotton crop is under water. With the equipment costs as well as the production costs, farmers just can't take these types of hits and survive."

Jones says crop yields here were average, so it wasn't a terrible year. Still, the number of farms in the area were already declining and more farmers are considering leaving their fields.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.