Originally created 09/07/00

Farming uncertainty grows



When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about life on the prairie in the late 1800s, a bushel of wheat sold for a dollar. Today, a bushel of wheat goes for about two dollars.

It's a comparison Hilda Barnhart used to illustrate the dismal growth of grain prices that her family faces at their Hephzibah farm.

State leaders and agricultural representatives met Tuesday in Atlanta to discuss the status of Georgia's farming community. They pledged to work toward the goal of finding ways to solve the state's "family-farm crisis."

For years, low crop prices and high material costs have worked against the traditional small farm.

On top of these economic hurdles, drought conditions during the past three growing seasons have created an uncertain future for Georgia farmers looking to carry on the family business.

Philip Barnhart has spent his life on the 160-acre farm just outside of Augusta that his father bought in 1958. Now that his father is retired, Mr. Barnhart runs the farm with the help of his four sons and daughter.

He said he is convinced that he'll be able to retire on this farm - even if he's not as convinced that some relief lies ahead.

"It won't get any better. Inflation will continue to rise and continue to narrow the margin," he said.

Inflation has meant that Mr. Barnhart pays four times more for fertilizer than he did a few decades ago. But during that same time period, crop prices have hovered around the same level.

So continuing the way-of-life Mr. Barnhart has always known has meant adapting.

Instead of relying on one crop, Mr. Barnhart grows everything from sweet corn to small grain. Hay is his biggest cash crop, and he also boards beef cows.

"If we weren't diversified here, we couldn't stay in as a crop farm," he said.

More importantly, he has found a way to sell directly to retail. In the mid-70s, Mr. Barnhart opened Barnhart's Feed and Seed, allowing him to receive retail rather than wholesale prices for his crops.

This makes Mr. Barnhart more of an exceptional case. He pointed out that it was his farm's close proximity to Augusta that made the store profitable.

"Another 20 miles, you don't have that ability," he said. "(Retailing) is the only thing that helps us."

The cyclical nature of family farming also is being threatened by economic conditions, one local farmer said.

Robert Edenfield said that, although he would like to see his son take over his farm, the industry was attracting fewer young people.

With his brother and father, Mr. Edenfield plants in the same cattle-dotted Burke County pastures that he played on as a child.

On these fields Tommy, Mr. Edenfield's brother, learned how to drive a tractor in "the straightest rows you've ever seen."

Now the two men are working to secure the future of Rt Farms, Inc. on land purchased by their father, Joe, in 1966. Mostly, they're praying for a decent rain.

"It's really been a struggle for a farm to survive on any level," Robert Edenfield said. "Everything we buy today costs probably 10 to 15 percent increase every year. Every product we sell, except for cattle, comes down that same amount."

The farm's large volume helped the Edenfields' farm stay afloat, even though they are increasingly feeling more of pinch from the costs of machinery insurance and expansion.

Robert Edenfield said he wasn't sure how smaller farms in the county were able to fare, and he knows some farmers who have been forced to quit because of finances.

"Years ago, we didn't have to borrow the money; we could finance our own crops," Joe Edenfield said. "Today the interest will kill you."

Like Mr. Barnhart, Robert Edenfield seemed unwilling to concede to the pressures threatening the farming lifestyle he has inherited.

"You have a lot hanging on your shoulders, but there's still a lot of freedom in it," he said. "We're going to try to keep our heads above water."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.