AMERICA’S FARMERS Pennsylvania Farmers Stick to Small-Scale Operations
LITITZ, Pa. (AP) _ Robert Spahr leaves big-time farming to others. The Lancaster County man lives on the farm where his mother was born, raises feed for the dairy cows he tends with his wife, and has no hired help.
″I’ve never been a master farmer. I’ve never set the world on fire. I just kept on going,″ said Spahr, 58. ″I didn’t take the chances some do. When things didn’t go so well, I didn’t get strapped to my butt.″
At 70 acres, Naomi and Bob Spahr’s farm is tiny by Midwestern standards, but nearly average for the southeastern Pennsylvania County, which claims to be the No. 1 non-irrigated agricultural county in the nation, with farm production valued at $700 million a year.
The region’s farms have suffered in recent years along with the rest of American agriculture, but here the economic woes are limited.
″It’s not as tough here, but it’s not as good as it should be,″ said Spahr, whose milk is used to make chocolate at the nearby Hershey Foods Corp. plant.
Less than 10 percent of the county’s farms are financially distressed, compared to 20 percent or even 40 percent in the Midwest, according to Larry Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University who has studied the state’s farm finances.
″A majority of our farmers are earning less now than they were several years ago,″ said Robert Zook, head of farm lending for American Bank in Lancaster. ″Because they’re having difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going out of business.″
Among the reasons cited for the area’s relative health are its strategic location, the compactness and diversification of its farms, the cautious nature of its people, and the blessings of fertile soil and a mild climate.
The county’s rolling hills accommodate 112,000 dairy cows - the highest concentration in the country - plus 340,000 hogs and 270,000 beef cattle and calves, said Jay Irwin, the county agricultural extension director.
The poultry industry, which has rebounded from a devastating outbreak of avian influenza in 1983 and 1984, maintains an estimated 10 million egg-laying hens and produces 44 million broilers a year for market.
″You’re talking about a tremendously high population″ of livestock, Irwin said. One reason is that the eggs, milk and meat from those animals are only a few hours from the markets of New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore.
″We’re within an overnight drive of one-third of the population of the United States,″ Irwin said.
Almost half the county’s 600,000 acres are planted with corn and hay.
″We’ve really got some of the best soil and some of the best climate anywhere in the world,″ said Kenneth Rutt, who tills 450 acres, more than enough to feed his 250 dairy cows and calves.
Because much of what they grow feeds their livestock, Lancaster County farmers - unlike Midwestern growers - have not been hurt badly by tumbling grain prices. In fact, the county uses more corn than it produces.
″If you’re feeding cattle, you like to see low grain prices,″ Rutt said.
The area’s only cash crop is tobacco, which many farmers grow as a sideline.
With such diversification, the area is insulated from disasters that affect just one segment of agriculture.
″We don’t have all our eggs in one basket,″ said Darvin Boyd, director of agri-finance for Hamilton Bank.
In addition, farmers here don’t share the problem of some Midwesterners who expanded rapidly in the 1970s, buying up land and expensive machinery, only to get caught by falling land prices and rising interest rates.
In Lancaster County, the cost of an acre has stayed stable, supported in part by the slow but sure pace of residential development.
″We have a development within a half-mile of us. We see it coming out further and further,″ said Mrs. Spahr.
Farmers in the county have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to buy big parcels of land, which in turn would require big purchases of equipment.
More than one-fifth of the county’s farms are owned by Amish, plain people of German descent who shun outsiders and modern technology.
″Horses and mules,″ Irwin said. ″You don’t have any big investment in tractors.″
″The entire area is of a conservative and cautious nature. They’re not going to expand considerably unless they can see where it’s going to pay for them,″ said Dick Denison, financial farm consultant with the Pennsylvania Farmers Association. ″As a rule, they don’t go into debt much.″
Like many of the area’s farmers, the Spahrs store extra feed to guard against lean years. When possible, they buy secondhand machinery.
″You can always save yourself some good money. There’s always good equipment around,″ Spahr said, whose barn with wooden pegs and faded white paint was built in 1939.
Spahr said he sympathized with the financially pressed Midwestern farmers but couldn’t identify with them.
″We’re conservative people. We don’t plunge as much as the people in the Midwest. They need to plunge. They have big acres to cover,″ said Spahr. ″We’re in a different set-up. ... We can’t operate like they do. They can’t operate like we do.″