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Weather, trade take toll on farmers

By TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A lack of rain, the intense summer heat and a trade war with China are taking a toll on Alabama’s farmers this year.

At Circle R Farms along the Alabama River in northern Montgomery County, that toll can be easily seen just by comparing ears of corn. While some of the corn crop gets plenty of water from the massive, pivot-style irrigation systems, much of it relies only on rain. A non-irrigated ear is about four inches shorter and considerably thinner that an irrigated one, and that means less revenue for farmers selling the crop.

Only about 15 percent of the crop is irrigated, said Drew Wendland, who manages row crop production.

“It’s all brown,” Wendland said. “It really suffered from the lack of rain this summer. There were some spans or 10 to 20 days without rain on multiple occasions, and that really dealt it a blow.

“No matter how much we do, there’s just not much we can do about that.”

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Agriculture remains Alabama’s largest industry. Farming and forestry account for 580,000 jobs and generate $70 billion for Alabama’s economy annually, according to Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell.

Corn is an in-demand commodity, and most Alabama corn is sold domestically for either produce or animal feed, according to Andy Wendland. He’s Drew’s father and the owner of the multi-generational Circle R Farms.

“We are your traditional southern farm. We grow corn, cotton, soybeans, cattle, hay and a few other more unusual crops,” Andy Wendland said. “The demand is much, much higher for corn, so we tend to push it toward the irrigated acres when we can.”

Only 11.7 percent of the state is experiencing a severe or moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Twenty-one percent of the state, including Montgomery County, is listed as “abnormally dry.” But that’s enough to make a difference in how much corn farmers are able to produce and sell.

“These plants both got the same amount of fertilizer, the same seed,” Drew Wendland said of the irrigated ear and the non-irrigated ear he had just plucked from the field. “And this one is, I would say, double [the value].”

The lack of rain isn’t impacting the Wendland’s cotton quite as much. It is a more drought-resistant crop and they timed the planting to be able to withstand the worst of the summer heat.

“This cotton is coming along nicely. It was planted later than normal and the rains we’ve had lately have really helped,” Andy Wendland said.

“In the heat of the day, these plants might wilt at a different stage. But as young as [the crop] is it is not wilting.”

The trouble for cotton isn’t the weather, but rather the international trade environment. The ongoing trade war with China is also impacting farmers, particularly cotton and soybean producers.

“It’s cotton and soybeans, because China is such a big user,” Drew Wendland said. “It has been a big blow. In the last six months, prices have fallen 30 percent.”

Drew’s father concurred.

“It depends on what metric you use, but it’s definitely heading down,” Andy Wendland said.

Parnell said most Alabama farmers support what President Donald Trump is trying to do with his tough trade stance toward China, even though they are suffering pain as a result of the trade war.

“About a third of what we produce is shipped overseas,” Parnell said.

“One of the biggest challenges facing agriculture the last two years is trade. We’ve been in a bad position with some of our trading partners and they’ve taken advantage of America for the last 30 or 40 years. The Trump administration is trying to correct that, and most of our farmers are supportive. But it is painful for farmers in the interim. Our demand has dropped considerably, particularly of late when China decided they wouldn’t buy any American products. That is a big concern for agriculture.

“It’s short term pain for what we think can be long term gain.”

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