2005 declared a distaster for agriculture

However, local farmers probably won’t be seeking federal loan aid.

By: Jessica Beym and Leon Tovey
   Some local farmers say that while the weather conditions of the past year took a toll on their crops, they probably won’t apply for a federal program offering low-interest loans to help them recover.
   On Jan. 13, the U.S. Department of Agriculture named Middlesex County and 18 other New Jersey counties agricultural disaster areas because of a wet, cool spring, dry summer and even soggier fall in 2005. The only counties not included in the disaster declaration are Union and Hudson counties.
   The declaration makes New Jersey farmers — including those in Cranbury, Monroe and South Brunswick — eligible for low-interest loans of up to $500,000.
   Jim Etsch, a Monroe farmer who grows corn and hay on farms in Monroe, South Brunswick, Old Bridge and Manalapan, said Wednesday that while his family’s crops were hurt by the erratic weather last year, losses are not likely to be high enough to qualify them for the federal loans.
   The state executive director of the USDA Farm Services, Paul Hlubik, said Tuesday that if farmers saw a loss of 30 percent or more of a single crop last year, they can qualify for loans from the Farm Service Agency. But farmers must also prove that they cannot receive credit from their creditors or banks, he said.
   Mr. Etsch said these two conditions make it unlikely that he will apply to the program. His hay harvest was poor this year — a smaller than average second cutting and no third cutting — and his corn crop wasn’t as good as he had hoped, but he has had worse years, he said.
   "My yields have been worse in severe drought years — not usually a 30 percent loss, sometimes as much as 25, 27 percent," he said. "And federal loans I usually don’t worry about because I can always go through my local farm bank."
   Cranbury farmer Alan Danser said that while he lost more than 30 percent of his 200-acre soybean crop, his 300 acres of corn fared better.
   "Our corn crop was probably not off by 30 percent, but our soybean crop definitely was," Mr. Danser said. "The biggest effect on us was the complete lack of rain in August and September. The soybeans didn’t have enough moisture to finish off the crop and the beans were smaller, which actually makes a tremendous difference."
   During a good season, Mr. Danser said, the farm averages 45 to 50 bushels of soybeans per acre. This year he was only able to harvest about 20 to 35 bushels. Out of his 300 acres of corn, Mr. Danser said he irrigates 80 acres. He brought in 140 bushels per acre as opposed to the average of 180.
   When his crops have been drastically affected by the weather in the past, Mr. Danser said he has not had a problem receiving loans from the bank and, like Mr. Etsch, said he doesn’t think this year will be any different.
   But he said he still plans on looking into the specifics of the federal loan.
   The weather also affected farmers who have retail farm stands and rely on customers for revenue.
   Jill Stults, owner of the 200-acre Stults Farm on Cranbury Neck Road, said the wet spring caused strawberry crops to come in late, which shortened the window of time she had to sell them.
   Ms. Stults said a similar problem occurred in the fall when weekends of rain prevented customers from coming to the farm to pick pumpkins. While they lost revenue through sales, she said they did not lose enough crops to apply for the loan.
   "The wet spring prolonged us from getting everything planted, but everything survived. We have spent a lot of money in irrigation so it kept things watered," said Ms. Stults.
   "We’re not a wholesaler, so when the crop is in abundance and we can’t sell it all at one time, it goes to waste," Ms. Stults said. "We lost revenue not because of crop failure but a marketing problem. But that’s just the name of the game."
   Mr. Hlubik agreed. He said the federal loan program might help ease the pain of a difficult year, but it would not take the risk out of farming in New Jersey.
   "Farming is a very difficult, capital-intensive business," he said. "And this is by no means a give-away program. These are still loans farmers have to repay."
   Mr. Hlubik said farmers in Middlesex County who wish to apply for the program can do so by contacting the Monmouth County Farm Service Agency by calling (732) 462-0075.
Staff writer Joseph Harvie contributed to this report.