May 8, 2003
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Farmers finish up spring planting

Local farmer Joe Staggs planted soybeans in his field on State Route 72 last week. Staggs and other Miami Township farmers have been busy the last few weeks, planting their summer crops.

With winter wheat as high as two feet and green as the darkest clover, many farmers in Miami Township are entering the last leg of this year’s planting season. They say that they got an early start in April because of the dry conditions, and that the recent rains should help produce a healthy crop.

Though less than half of the estimated 80 farmers in Miamin Township still farm full-time, most of them still work their land because it’s what they love to do.

A small-scale part-time farmer

Last week Joe Staggs could be found bumping along on his John Deere conventional drill tractor dropping small tan beans in the rich mahogany soil of his 92-acre farm on State Route 72, across from the Clifton-Union Cemetery. There is no need to qualify them, they’re soybeans, as any farmer in the area knows. And they grow right next to corn and winter wheat, the amber waves of grain.

The weekend’s rains sprouted the corn Staggs finished planting a few weeks ago, he said. He was able to get about 40 percent of his beans in the dirt before the wet weather settled in, and with a little sun they too should sprout in the next few days, he said.

Staggs still tills his land in the fall and spring to soften the dirt before planting. He is one of the traditionalists who by next week will have been across his fields four times since the harvest. Others use a more modern no-till method that gets the same work done in one pass.

Staggs has farmed his land part-time since 1973, after buying it from his in-laws. He worked at Morris Bean & Company to pay the bills until 1991, when he retired from the company and focused more on farming. Though the size of the farm has decreased significantly from its original 1,200 acres, the risk Staggs takes on his crop is no less important for him.

If he is lucky, he said, he might yield 150 bushels of corn per acre. But with the weather, insect and weed variables, the yield has been much, much less in other years. Farmers can choose to contract with a grain buying terminal, such as Southwest Landmark in South Charleston, for a set price at any time. But Staggs said it’s always a gamble that depends on the rate at summer and fall harvest times.

If the price of corn bottoms out in a high yield season, the farmer gets the contracted amount and wins. If the price spikes at harvest time, the farmer gets the contracted amount and loses. New corn is currently selling for around $2.14 per bushel, Staggs said, and he hopes it will get up to $2.60 by the fall.

Until then he is holding tight and watching the wavering markets. The risk is something Staggs takes on, he said, because he enjoys farming and is glad to be busy. And his wife supports him, if that’s what he wants to do.

“She brings me hot sandwiches and coffee and comes out to the field to talk to me, and that helps a lot,” he said. “I feel this is a really good time in my life, I feel really blessed.”

A midsize part-time farmer

In the air-conditioned cab of his no-till grain drill Craig Corry looks small. But he can plant a raw 50-acre field in a matter of hours, after he gets home from his day job as an agricultural teacher at the Greene County Career Center. Corry farms the same land his family has owned for six generations, since the 1830s, but it is difficult to subsist on the profits of that land, so he teaches.

As early as April 8 Corry began planting 500 acres of mostly corn and beans on his farm near Grinnell and Clifton Roads. He owns 400 acres and rents the rest from a neighbor. Most of his acreage is reserved for crops, but a few fields are for the 20 brute cows he breeds for beef production each year.

The farming Corry does is for profit. It’s a business of risks that is tempered by his steady teaching job. Though he has looked to acquire land over the years, he said, finding adjacent parcels of farm land for sale is rare.

The risk is worth it, he said, standing in the middle of his trampled corn field at dusk with four more hours of planting to do in the dark on a school night.

“I can work close to home, live in a rural setting, raise my kids in a wholesome environment,” he said. “What else am I going to do on a day like today? I’m not a golfer.”

Corry will do all that he can to improve his odds, including using genetically modified seeds resistant to certain insects, feeding antibiotics to his livestock to avoid disease and using Roundup herbicide to kill back the weeds that attack the crops.

He said that people have overreacted to accusations against the use of modern technology to improve crop yields.

“There’s a lot of myth and not a lot of fact, it’s an alarmist attitude about the chemicals and antibiotics,” he said. “The food supply is safe.”

Farmers are environmentalists because they are also consumers, he said. They care about the ramifications of their practices, he said, because they affect the farmers’ land and their families as well.

“Technology is the farmer’s friend,” Corry said.

He uses a global positioning system to map soil samples on every foot of his land to gauge which areas need more of a certain fertilizer or herbicide. A truck then drives over his land and, based on the satellite data, automatically dispenses the amount of fertilizer needed to return the soil to fertile ground.

Corry must maximize his yield to make the most profit in order to stay in the business. The highly profitable hogs, known at one time as “mortgage lifters,” his family used to raise on the land are now left to big business for the most part, he said.

His father saw that he was becoming a rare breed. “My dad said that he was probably the last member of the Corry family who would farm full-time,” he said.

Corry’s children help out, mowing the grass by the house and occasionally driving the tractor a few rows at a time. But they are developing other interests, and Corry said that he would not pressure them to be tied to the farm.

“America now is several generations away from direct contact with farm life, and the common person’s perception about life on a farm is not accurate,” he said. “People tend to look at the positive aspect of straw hats and wives collecting eggs.”

But farming is also something Corry chose to do. “There’s a lot of risk and high investment involved,” he said. “If you really wanted to make money you probably wouldn’t be a farmer.”

A larger-scale full-time farmer

The neatly trimmed grass and the crisp red paint of the barn at Whispering Pines Farm speaks of stability and permanence. Lifelong farmer and current Miami Township trustee Lamar Spracklen has owned his land on Clifton Road since 1970, when he bought it from his parents. But to hear him talk of the gambling life of a farmer, one might think the place was in imminent danger of being swallowed by the earth itself.

“I just do what seems right from a business perspective. If it seems like a good deal, why sometimes I just close my eyes and do it,” he said. “It’s worked out more times than not, and I guess that’s why I’m still here.”

Spracklen has slowly grown into becoming a businessman, and the risks he takes are calculated. For instance, some of his best decisions, he said, have come from acquiring land.

Because the price of grain has gone down and the price of land has risen over the last several decades, Spracklen said, it is becoming harder to make a profit on a small farm. According to the Greene County Farmland Preservation Plan of 2000, the number of farms of 500 acres or less in Greene County has fallen steadily from over 1,000 in 1969 to 661 in 1997. While there were no farms of more than 2,000 acres in the county thirty-four years ago, there are now nine.

Over the years, Spracklen has acquired parcels of land as they became available all over the township, and in Pitchin, South Charleston and Bowersville. His family farms 2,100 acres, a good part of which he rents to his two sons for the majority of his income, he said.

Spracklen has also diversified his farm activities. He sells seed corn, raises vegetables and sweet corn, grows trees and is always watching for available land. But some things remain constant, and those are lines he does not cross.

“A lot of people contract now for crop prices, but I don’t like to contract for something until I have it,” he said. “I take risks, but I don’t like to take that one.”

Most of the farm’s 900 acres of corn and 900 acres of beans were first planted around April 15. Planting has gone well, and the Spracklens have just a few more days left to finish.

From the comfort of his living room Spracklen has access to the minute details and remote nuances of every grain of agricultural data available through a satellite hookup to Data Transmission Network Farm Dayta. With a special monitor and keyboard, he can watch the $5.38 per bushel price of beans on the Chicago Board of Trade fluctuate by two cents over the course of an hour. At the touch of a button he can view a storm as it moves across the country, or check out the temperature and daily crop yield in Brazil, the Midwest’s major agricultural competitor.

DTN makes the Weather Channel look like a relic.

Spracklen maintains a rather large operation spread out over a few different townships and still retains a vigilant watch over his fields.

“I scout my fields,” he said. “Someone told me the cheapest thing you can put on your soil is your footprint.”

Though he likes the idea of owning his own business and would do it the same way again, his view on starting out as a young farmer in today’s market was telling. “I wouldn’t do it,” he said.

He supports his two sons, who both have agricultural degrees from Ohio State and farm parts of the family farm in Pitchin and South Charleston. But competition, low grain prices, cost of land, mega-farms and development pressure all work to make farming more difficult, he said.

And yet people who love the land still do it.

“When the weather’s good it’d be my choice to be out there getting my work done in the field rather than in an office somewhere,” he said. “It’s a great life, I have no regrets.”


—Lauren Heaton