finish up spring planting
PHOTO BY LAUREN HEATON
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 years 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 its 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, theyre soybeans, as any farmer
in the area knows. And they grow right next to corn and winter wheat,
the amber waves of grain.
The weekends 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 its 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 thats 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
The farming Corry does is for profit. Its 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? Im 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.
Theres a lot of myth and not a lot of fact, its 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 farmers 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,
Corrys 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
America now is several generations away from direct contact with
farm life, and the common persons 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. Theres a
lot of risk and high investment involved, he said. If you
really wanted to make money you probably wouldnt 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. Its worked out more times than not, and I guess thats
why Im 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 dont like
to contract for something until I have it, he said. I take
risks, but I dont like to take that one.
Most of the farms 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 Midwests 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 todays
market was telling. I wouldnt 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 weathers good itd be my choice to be out there
getting my work done in the field rather than in an office somewhere,
he said. Its a great life, I have no regrets.