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Westmoreland farmers’ profits washed away by 2018 rains

November 27, 2018

The perfect storm that made 2018 such a bad year for Westmoreland County farmers was a combination of one of the wettest summers on record and international forces out of their control.

For Joel Milowicki, the storm was a literal one -- a tornado that struck his family’s farm not once but twice.

In June, the funnel cloud tore the roof off the dairy barn and milking house at Keenan Greenhill Farm in Hempfield. In October, the storm confirmed his decision to get out of dairy farming.

“My family had some good times in the dairy business. ... I just found a better way,” Milowicki, 34, said. “The produce has been a way that I got to stay a farmer.”

Elsewhere in Westmoreland County, from Sewickley Township to Blairsville, farmers tell horror stories about selling off their milking herds, watching pumpkins rot in the fields, enduring 7 inches of rain at a time and weathering international trade wars.

“It’s probably the worst year that I’ve ever seen,” said Rick Ebert, a dairy farmer and president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Ebert, 58, has been farming in Derry since 1982, but it’s 2018 that will stay in his mind -- mostly because of the rain.

“I’ve never seen a year like this before,” he said. “We’ve had wet years, wet springs, but they dried out eventually. This year, it was just relentless.”

The National Weather Service said 2018 is on track to be the fifth-wettest year ever for Western Pennsylvania. At 48.08 inches of rain to date, 2018 is the seventh-wettest year on record. This year’s rainfall recorded at Pittsburgh International Airport exceeds the normal amount of rain by 16 inches.

The rain made it difficult for farmers to get their crops in on time, affected the growth and quality of crops and, in some cases, delayed harvest times, said Mark O’Neill, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

Simply stringing together several days of dry weather became an impossibility, delaying for many farmers the all-important first hay cutting and subsequent cuttings, he said.

“It has been an extremely wet year for all of Pennsylvania,” O’Neill said. “The hay crop has pretty much been a disaster in the state. ... What happens is if you don’t get dry periods, you can’t get in there and get to it. It has to be dry.”

In the case of corn, some farmers were late with planting and then watched the rain have an adverse effect on crop yield and crop quality, which can cut into profits, he said.

One farmer near Hempfield Area High School saw his corn yield drop from the normal 100 bushels per acre to 60 bushels per acre, which Westmoreland Fair President Craig Lash attributed to rain and a lack of sufficient sunlight.

“It ain’t quit raining all summer. I don’t know that we got one solid nice week all summer,” Lash said. “I’ve never seen a summer like this in my life.”

Lash, 61, said it’s too early to calculate the losses, but added, “They’re pretty substantial.”

Milowicki agreed that the wet weather has been the No. 1 problem for Westmoreland County farmers this year.

“If everybody has a wonderful growing season, they don’t mind the prices being so low,” he said, noting that farmers can always compensate by adding acreage or livestock.

Even with his farm’s shift away from dairy and toward produce and beef cattle, farming still feels like a gamble to Milowicki.

“Everybody in agriculture is a gambler -- you gamble with the weather, you gamble with the seed you plant, you gamble with whether the price is going to be better than they forecast,” he said. “A lot of these family farmers are just hoping and praying for a big break, that the price will turn around, and I just don’t see it.”

Troubles beyond the weather

The travails of dairy farmers continue to be driven by a glut of fluid milk, declining demand, low prices and the vagaries of international markets, forcing some producers to sell at a loss or consider dairy alternatives such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

Although dairy prices have been dropping since 2014, one harbinger of the kind of year 2018 would be was Dean Foods’ announcement in March that it was dropping 100 milk producers, including 42 in Pennsylvania. The decision was driven by the fact that Walmart was opening its own milk processing plant near Fort Wayne, Ind., removing about 600 Walmart stores from Dean Foods’ clientele, according to news accounts.

Lash, a dairy farmer in Sewickley Township, mentioned the Dean Foods decision at a July news conference announcing the itinerary for the 64th annual fair. He said dairy farmers are getting paid the same amount for their milk that they were in the 1970s.

Another factor in the bad year has been President Trump’s tariffs on aluminum and steel, and the resulting trade war with China, O’Neill said. Retaliation by China has prompted a drop in agricultural commodity prices, which means less money for farmers, he explained.

“China is the largest purchaser of American soybeans,” O’Neill said. “They buy one-third of all the soybeans we grow and two-thirds of all the soybeans that are exported.”

China increased tariffs on American soybeans, and Chinese companies started buying more soybeans from Brazil, he said. The resulting glut of soybeans caused prices to drop, so much so that soybeans trading on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange went from $10.50 a bushel to $8 a bushel, he said.

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