FAISON — If it’s true that farmers only remember their worst years and their best ones, 2012 will stand out in their memories for a long while.
For corn growers in the drought-plagued Midwest, it may be one of the worst. For those who grow corn in North Carolina, it’s looking like one of the best.
“Once in a while we get a blue moon,” said Ron Heiniger, a corn specialist for N.C. State University based at a research station in Plymouth in Washington County. “It looks like that’s what going to happen this year. We’ve got the confluence of a good crop and good prices. It only happens once in a while.”
Corn prices on futures markets have hit record highs this summer based on fears that up to 15 percent of the crop grown in the Midwest will be lost because of the widespread drought. Final numbers won’t be known until all the crop is harvested.
The high prices have generated stress among livestock farmers in North Carolina and elsewhere because feed, made mostly from corn and soybeans, makes up some 70 percent of the cost of raising pigs and chickens, both major agricultural products in the state.
North Carolina producers import two thirds of the grain used to feed livestock here because the state is a bit player in the nation’s production of feed corn. Of the 96.4 million acres of corn the U.S. Department of Agriculture says was planted in the United States this year, less than 1 percent was in North Carolina.
Still, Heiniger said, the state has more than 2,000 registered corn growers, and some of them expanded their corn acreage this year because of strong prices last year.
Mostly, that will pay off. Except for an area in the Piedmont between Raleigh and Greensboro and another around Union and Stanly counties that didn’t get enough rain, and a few spots near the coast that were blistered by July heat, most growers have enjoyed adequate rain and the absence of widespread diseases and insects.
Last week, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services forecast that North Carolina corn farmers would harvest 114 bushels per acre on average, up 30 bushels per acre from last year and above the 10-year average.
In some areas, Heiniger said, farmers may see yields of as high as 300 bushels per acre. In some parts of the Midwest, farmers are expecting 124 bushels per acre, dismal by their standards.
With prices so high and the potential of a grain scarcity, some livestock producers have said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should temporarily relax the ethanol fuel standard, which requires the addition of ethanol to gasoline. Most ethanol is made from corn; in recent years, ethanol production has used about 40 percent of the nation’s corn crop.
Jay Sullivan sees both sides of the argument that at times seems to pit livestock growers against grain farmers. On his farm in Sampson County, he has more than 5,000 pigs and more than 350 acres of corn. He sells both at the best price he can negotiate.
Sullivan, president of the Corn Growers Association of North Carolina, doesn’t think the EPA should alter the ethanol mandate, but let the forces of supply and demand determine the right price for corn and the right amounts of it and livestock to be produced.
“The market’s working,” Sullivan said, motoring toward a stand of corn in one of his fields that stands 7 feet high with ears as big around as a man’s forearm.
Darren Armstrong has begun picking his corn, which grows in the inky dirt of western Hyde County. With his father and two brothers, Armstrong has about 6,200 acres on which to raise corn, soybeans and wheat.
In the spring, when they sowed corn, prices were less than $5 a bushel, and with a decent crop, the Armstrongs could pay their bills and make a little extra.
If they get $8 a bushel, as it looks like they might, they could upgrade a piece of equipment or pick up a few more acres of land to expand the farm.
“Or pay for the drought we had last year,” Armstrong said.
Farming is a game of averages, growers say; while the best and the worst are the most memorable, they succeed or fail on averages. As Armstrong puts it, “If you look at it over five years, you’ll have two good years, you’ll have two bad years, and you’ll have one year that’s OK.”
It will be several weeks before North Carolina growers have their crop harvested, and many will be anxious until it’s all gathered and stored. Corn harvesting coincides with what is often the most active part of the Atlantic hurricane season, and much of the crop is grown near the coast, where it can be blown over by high winds and drowned by heavy rains.
“There’s a lot of money standing in those fields,” Heiniger said. “We’ve just got to get it in the bin.”