Anyone who lives in Somerset County can appreciate the life a farmer leads; whether milking dairy cows or raising beef or pigs, the farmer is always on duty. Vacation days are sacrificed and holiday celebrations are often cut short so that farm work can be finished as usual.
It doesn’t matter whether it is raining or if the snow is up to his/her knees, the animals must be cared for seven days a week, 365 days a year.
But what about the area’s crop farmers? Surely they must enjoy this time of year when the weather is not fit for planting or harvesting and they can sit back and relax while the farmer down the road wakes up at the break of day to feed his stock.
It’s obvious that the spring and summer are jam-packed with activity for them from plowing to planting to harvesting, but what exactly does a crop farmer do in the winter?
It turns out that what many people might see as a 3 to 4 month paid vacation handed out to crop farmers each year actually brings with it its own set of worries, headaches and work.
Jerry Miller, Friedens, has spent his life developing his crop farming business. With more than 3,000 acres of corn, soybeans, hay and winter wheat to harvest and store through the winter, Miller must be organized to keep things running smoothly. A big part of that organization involves using his extra winter time to its fullest.
“The most important thing we do in the winter is store and maintain our crops,” said Miller. “You don’t haul all the grain off to the mill immediately; you have to store it.”
On his property, Miller has storage for 100,000 bushels of grain and several truckloads of mid-size square bales and/or round bales. All of those buildings must be cared for over the winter months to ensure the quality of the products held within them.
Most of the winter is spent on one form of maintenance or another for the crop farmer. Whether he is checking on his buildings or making sure that everything is in tip-top shape for the next season, Miller and his crew of workers can find something to do each and every day that the wintery weather allows.
When the weather is clear, the crew will work out in the fields, preparing for spring planting. Before the seeds are even thought of, last year’s stalks need to be chopped, the ground must be plowed and fertilized, lime must be spread and fence rows need to be cleared.
Although he himself does not keep any animals, Miller works closely with other farmers to keep his ground fertile.
“We spread a couple thousand gallons of liquid manure that we get from a neighboring dairy farmer,” explained Miller, “and we truck chicken manure in from the Lancaster area to use as fertilizer. Chicken manure is the only kind of fertilizer that we use and it gives us 15-25 percent better yields with corn.”
While all of the outdoor work is rightfully important, the Somerset County winter just does not provide as many nice days as Miller and his crew may like. Fortunately, there are many other tasks to keep them occupied indoors on the bad days.
Miller owns three combines and six heads, corn planters, grain drills, discs and brush hogs, tractors and ton trucks that all need to be maintained and certified before they can be put to work in the spring. The wintertime is put to good use making repairs and preparing equipment for the next year, cutting down on time spent dealing with break-downs at the height of planting and harvest time.
“Somerset County only has about two weeks to one month including rainy days to plant. We try to start on April 24 (my birthday) and finish by May 24. Everything has to be ready to go,” said Miller.
Perhaps the most important job that winter brings the crop farmer is marketing. After harvest, they have thousands of bushels of grain and they have to find a market for it before next year’s harvest.
For Miller, that means spending a lot of time watching DTN, a channel that shows weather conditions and gives up to the minute information from the Chicago Board of Trade – the New York Stock Exchange of Agriculture.
“(On DTN) you can see the prices go up $10, down $2 and back up $3 in minutes,” said Miller.
The Chicago Board of Trade follows the trading prices on corn, oil, gas, milk and other products and just like with the stock market, the goal for farmers is to sell while the price is high and (hopefully) buy when the price is low, so keeping an eye on the markets is especially important during the winter months. Miller owns several of his own trucks, so if the price is right, he has the freedom to truck his grain as soon as he has time.
Miller’s trucks only make trips between 200-250 miles, so a lot of his grain is sold to farms in Lancaster, but some of it does make its way to port cities like Baltimore where they are shipped to other countries for use in plastics production or for food. His trucks also make several trips per week to deliver hay to farms in Maryland and further south.