Local farmers struggle to hold on

Local farmers fear rising tax rates this year because of the falling price of milk.
(CME Group)

Rockbridge area farmers are feeling the sting of the economic slowdown as many fight to stay out of the red.

Bernard Goodbar, president of the Rockbridge County Farm Bureau, thinks the only short-term solution is to ensure that property taxes do not increase this year. 

“We are not making the money we used to,” said Goodbar. “ If they  raise property taxes, it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.” 

Goodbar spoke on behalf of the Farm Bureau at the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting Feb. 23. He said farmers would have trouble surviving if a higher tax was levied.

But Rockbridge County Commissioner of the Revenue David Whitesell said that taxes  most likely will increase, despite farmers’ hopes. Goodbar said it seems like taxes go up “every time you turn around.”

The county holds weekly budget work sessions where citizens may address the board with budget requests.  Hunt Riegel, the board’s Natural Bridge representative, said that no numbers have been released, but that the budget will be finalized by the end of April.

Meanwhile, since last summer, prices for commodities such as milk, corn and beef have dropped significantly -- almost 50 percent in some cases -- while farm expenses such as seed and fertilizer have either remained stable or increased in price.

In June, farmers could sell about 12 gallons of milk for  about $19 to processors.  Now the same amount of milk fetches only about $10 on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Similarly, beef that was once about $1 per pound is now worth only about 87 cents per pound.

Goodbar has raised beef cattle and hay since 1983 on the farm where he grew up.  When he was a child, about 95 percent of the county’s residents lived on farms. Now, less than 6 percent of county’s population – about 1,200 residents – are farmers, said Goodbar.

Fewer people are choosing to farm because they do not make enough money to maintain their land or livestock and turn a profit, he said. About 80 percent of the farmers in the area have an additional job to cover costs at home.

Goodbar said he could not think of anyone who has had to sell land recently. But if the recession continues or property taxes increase, he said some of them will.

Tom Alexander of the Cherry Grove Dairy Farm of Fairfield has been dairy farming for 25 years. He said if the financial situation for farmers continues to worsen, people will have to quit farming.

"Right now, we're facing the worst prices … since I've been doing this," he said.

He thinks the worldwide recession is the biggest culprit. 
"Basically no one in the world can buy food," he said, "and that's come to
haunt U.S. dairies."

Meanwhile, veterinary costs are also taking a toll. Care costs for livestock have increased because more vets are choosing to care for pets rather than farm animals.

Dr. Allen Strecker of the Blue Ridge Animal Clinic said that’s mainly because it is more profitable to be a small-animal doctor.

"There's a big disparity between income [for small- and large-animal vets]," said Strecker.  "If you have a cow that's worth $500, you probably don't want to spend $300 on its surgery."

He said that pet owners are more likely to spend money on their animals because they have a companion relationship with them, while it is less economical to spend money for the health-care of food animals.
That means a shortage of veterinarians available to tend to Goodbar’s cattle.

And while gas prices have dropped from this summer’s high of about $4 per gallon, the seeds that farmers will be planting this year were harvested using that expensive gas.  Goodbar calls that a “trickle-down effect,” where the cost of harvesting seed is passed on to the next consumer, in this case the planter. Because of the recession, farmers cannot  make up the cost of the seed when they sell their product.

Another issue facing farmers is the number of brokers or processors working with the farmer and the consumer.

“For farmers everything is sold wholesale and everything is bought retail,” said Goodbar.  “That’s a lot of middlemen.”

He thinks a county farmer’s market, in addition to the one in Lexington, would enable farmers sell their products directly to the consumer, cutting out the middlemen.

Until then, Goodbar said, some farmers are leaving their fields unplanted, while others are still planting, hoping that commodity prices will rebound this summer.

“Us farmers are stubborn people,” he said.

Rockbridge County Farm Bureau

Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors


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