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Farmers decry rising fertilizer prices

Kole Upton has watched fuel prices go up and up. The Merced County farmer has also watched prices of his crops - corn, wheat, almonds, pistachios and cotton - rise to record highs.

But the prices Upton is getting for his crops don't quite offset the prices for everything he needs to farm.

"Fertilizer has increased unbelievably," Upton said.

The corn that Upton grows will end up in crunchy corn nuts, but corn being grown for ethanol has affected the price of almost everything that farmers grow.

Wheat, corn and rice prices have more than doubled in the past two years, and oil prices have tripled since the beginning of 2004. But farmers aren't getting rich off higher prices - they too are facing shortages and high costs.

Mark Smith, a Winton almond grower, said that expenses for almost everything to do with growing crops have increased. Fertilizer, derived from oil products, has shot through the roof, Smith said, and alternate forms of fertilizer, such as chicken or turkey manure, have also soared in price.

"Farmers are kind of stuck — they can't just raise their prices when their costs go up," Smith said. Growers are governed by prices set by the producers of their products, and if the price of the commodity is down, the farmer has no recourse.

Economic experts say that the continued growing of corn for ethanol has influenced the price of all commodities and has hit growers with animals the hardest.

"The price of feed is up, and a lot of that is due to the corn situation. The days of surplus are gone," Smith said.

Because corn prices have been so high, other feedstuffs, such as cottonseed, almond hulls, hay and other grains, have also risen. Growers are looking for alternative feed sources, but all feed sources have been affected.

In 2002, almond hulls, the part of the almond that covers the shell and the meat of the nut, were selling for about $76 a ton in Merced County. Now they're up to about $120 a ton, and will probably go up again. Almond hulls are mixed with other feed and fed to dairy cattle.

Hay prices have also been booming. In 2002, alfalfa hay sold for about $120 a ton in Merced County. This year, first-cutting alfalfa, the first hay of the year, is selling in the San Joaquin Valley for about $200 a ton for premium hay.

Historically, throughout the world, rice has been the staple that many people survive on. And in the United States, fears of shortages have sent some people scrambling to stock up on the little white grain.

Jim Morris, spokesman for the California Rice Commission, described rice as a higher maintenance crop than corn or wheat, and farmers often choose to put in the less labor-intensive crops.

In Merced County, there are about 9,000 acres of rice fields, and the state of California has about 550,000 acres. The state is the No. 2 rice-growing state in the country.

"What's short throughout the world is the long-grain rice," Morris said. "In California, most of the acreage is planted to medium-grain."

The price of fuel has also affected rice growers. Morris said that a rice planting machine has a gasoline tank that takes about $1,000 to fill with fuel. "Right now, it's costing a grower more than $1,000 an acre to get a crop harvested," he said.

Although medium-grain rice is usually used for such items as sushi and risotto, there's no taste difference in the two types of rice, and they can be used interchangeably. "If it's in your culture to eat long-grain rice, that's what you eat. And about 80 percent of the world eats long-grain rice," Morris said.

The price of rice is certainly up, Morris said, but it lagged behind the prices of both wheat and corn until recently. And although consumers are seeing the prices of rice, corn, wheat, flour and other foodstuffs go up, compared to the rest of the world this country is doing fairly well.

"Rice is still a good value. It costs about 10 cents a serving," Morris said.Upton, who has been farming since he retired from the Air Force in 1971, said that he's seen the market go up and down during those years, but as much as it is now.

"With the food prices and foreclosures and politicians not doing anything, I don't know where society is going," he said.

He does have a pretty good idea where food prices are going.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com

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