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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2002

NW Ohio, SE Michigan are farming powerhouses

BY JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

The bacon is already home in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan - as well as the grain and oilseeds that feed the pigs.

The area is a powerhouse for corn, soybean, wheat, hogs, and processing tomato production in the Midwest, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.

Consider:

  • Lenawee County produced the most soybeans of any Michigan county in 2000. It tied for second in corn production and was third in wheat. In Ohio, Wood County ranked almost as high: first in wheat, third in soybeans, and fourth in corn.

  • Eighteen northwest Ohio counties together account for 56 percent of the state's commercial grain storage capacity. Lucas County alone with its huge port elevators has 18 percent of Ohio's commercial grain storage and local counties accounted for the top six in the state.

  • The top six wheat production counties in Ohio are all in the northwest section, led by Wood. Four of Ohio's top 10 soybean counties are in northwest Ohio and three of the top 10 corn counties are local. Five of Ohio's top six processing tomato counties are in northwest Ohio and four of the top seven hog counties are in the northwest section.

    That dependence on grain makes debate on the new U.S. farm bill especially important to this area. Traditionally, midwestern farm subsidies are tied to how much corn and wheat has been raised on land that farmers control.

    In Wood County alone, the federal government deposited almost $65 million directly in farmers' bank accounts from 1996 to 2000. Many local farmers received hundreds of thousands each over that period of time, according to agriculture department records on the Environmental Working Group's ewg.org web site.

    Such government aid in recent years has accounted for well over a third of many farmers' revenues. Ironically, the record-high aid payments in recent years stem from a bill that was hailed as a way to end farm subsidies when it was passed in 1995.

    Area farmers are also looking for taxpayer subsidies for ethanol production.

    At least three groups of farmers in northwest Ohio are considering building ethanol plants - at a cost of tens of millions of dollars each - in hopes of creating a new market for their corn and taking advantage of federal subsidies for the clean-burning gasoline additive.

    Neither Ohio nor Michigan has plants operating that turn corn into a gasoline additive, but two companies that are much further along with their plans than the farmer groups have their sights on the tip of northeast Ohio and Michigan's thumb.

    Northwest Ohio - especially Lucas County and the immediate surrounding areas - is the commercial greenhouse center of the state and some officials are investigating orchids as a potential new crop.

    A group of local cattlemen is attempting to produce more consistently tender beef and sell it locally under their own brand name - Great Lakes Family Farm - with the aid of $1.3 million from federal taxpayers.

    The farmers hope to find consumers in a 100-mile radius of Bowling Green who are willing to pay a 10 to 30 percent premium for beef that is produced by local farmers and is guaranteed to be of a consistent quality.

    Most important this year to local farmers, however, will be the concern they have the least control over: the weather.

    Last year, spring started perfectly and many farmers planted their corn and soybeans in record time. That was quickly followed by far too much rain, which delayed some late planting and drowned out some crops.

    Then came what was nearly the worst-case scenario. The shallow-rooted plants that had survived wet conditions struggled through weeks without a drenching shower. By late July, when corn was at a crucial stage, the soil was far too dry and temperatures too hot. Some farms had fields of corn that produced only half an ear or no ear at all, and a disaster was declared in many counties.

    But on other farms where the drought was not so severe - especially closer to west central Ohio - farmers reported good yields.



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