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State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, left, and Auburn's Paul Mask, the assistant director of the regional extension system, examine wheat damaged by the Easter weekend freeze.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, left, and Auburn's Paul Mask, the assistant director of the regional extension system, examine wheat damaged by the Easter weekend freeze.

Wheat crop a total loss, Sparks says
Ag commissioner inspects Lawrence damage; farmers hope for aid

By Kristen Bishop 340-2443

HILLSBORO — Area farmers are hoping for federal disaster relief and quick insurance decisions after last week's freeze destroyed nearly all their wheat crops and damaged corn crops.

State Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, while surveying the crop damage Monday, told area growers that this season's wheat crop would likely be a total failure.

Corn crops planted in late March and early April fared better and have an opportunity to re-grow if weather permits, but the damage has left them more susceptible to fungi and diseases, said Heath Potter, a regional extension agent based in Moulton.

Farmers were already apprehensive because of the record-breaking drought, but the below-freezing temperatures of April 6-8 have left many wondering if they'll be able to produce yields that can recoup their investments.

Sparks said he is evaluating the situation and trying to get federal relief.

"We will be getting together with the governor to put together the report we've made and get it to Washington," he said. "We don't want to tell you we're here to save the day, but you can rest assured we'll put every ounce of energy we have into getting you help."

Brian Glenn of Glenn Farms in Hillsboro said wheat is usually his "winner crop" that he relies on to fund his business for the rest of the year.

"I have never had this happen in my experience farming, especially from the wheat standpoint," he said. "Normally, I look at wheat as my most reliable, steady source of income."

Glenn Farms was one of the stops Monday for Sparks, Deputy Commissioner Ronnie Murphy and a team of agriculture experts. They took wheat samples of different heights to show farmers the destruction caused by the freeze.

"It's hard to look at wheat within 10 days and tell how damaged it is. We're eight days in, and the head has turned brown, which tells you that it's dying," said Extension Assistant Director Paul Marks. "Freeze has killed the developing seed. It may still produce seed, but it will be very lightweight."

Marks said the wheat industry uses test weight to judge the quality of the wheat. Most area wheat won't have enough seed to reach a quality weight, he said.

"Even if it does survive, we'll have a hard time finding a buyer," he said.

Wheat growers' options will be limited, said Potter. Some may be able to sell the low-quality wheat as straw to landscapers, and if farmers didn't use certain chemicals and the nitrate levels are low enough, they can use it as hay for feeding.

But neither option is ideal, he said.

"Those are limited markets. ... We're talking about hundreds and hundreds of acres of wheat," he said. "Carrying it to grain is the most profitable option. Otherwise, they'd just be recouping a fraction of their investment."

Glenn said he hopes insurance companies will make a quick decision on whether to deem the wheat crop a failure. If they evaluate it soon rather than waiting until harvest, he may be able to recoup some losses by planting soybeans early.

"Most wheat in this area is double cropped with soybean that we would plant in June, but the ideal situation is, if the wheat is gone, to go ahead and get that approval so we can plant soybean while the moisture is good," he said. "It'll be strictly up to the insurance companies what we can do there."

Glenn said he has already filed a claim with his insurance company, and a crop insurance adjuster is scheduled to visit his farm this week.

Sparks said growers should expect to see some "rippling effects" from a low wheat yield. One would be a decreased availability of wheat seed for next year's planting.

On the positive side, corn still has a fighting chance. The season's hot crop, which is selling for nearly double what it did last year, has already struggled to grow with very little rainfall and was forced to withstand unusually cold temperatures, but it may still produce a decent yield, said Marks.

Most corn crops were in a low growing stage, just barely peeking above the soil, when the freeze hit North Alabama. It killed the aboveground growth but left seed underneath, which still has time to develop.

"We're seeing it crop up already, but unfortunately, we're seeing some of the worst conditions for it to keep growing," he said. "The freeze didn't kill it, but it damaged it."

The cold temperatures and biting wind left corn crops with tattered leaves, making them easy targets for fungi and disease.

"The leaves have been broken up, so you'll see secondary damage from the freeze that typically occurs when you have cool, wet weather like we have right now following a freeze," said Marks.

He said it's still too early to tell whether the corn will produce a decent yield this year and advised farmers to keep managing the crop.

"Replanting is not the best option," he said.

Many growers switched large portions of their acreage to corn this year in order to take advantage of the high rates.

If the corn crop is deemed a failure, they won't be able to plant cotton or soybeans on those fields if they used certain herbicides.

Glenn said the potential disaster is a major concern for many farmers who locked in contracts early in the season to guarantee high returns.

"I guess you'd say we have more at risk from the contract standpoint than normal cases because we were trying to get those prices, even though in some cases, the prices have gone higher," he said. "It had been a long time since we had that opportunity, and now we may not even have a crop to sell."

Many local farmers are still trying to recover from last year's poor harvest and may see some relief if an agriculture disaster aid bill makes its way through Congress.

The House passed a spending bill March 20 that includes nearly $29 billion for domestic programs and assistance for agriculture producers.

President Bush has said he will veto the bill because it also mandates combat troops be out of Iraq in 2008.

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