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Hay brings lifeline to farms

BY SUSAN KIM | BAKER, WV | March 31, 2000

BAKER, WV -- (March 31, 2000) -- Inside their farmhouse, Garlin Funkhauser and his son sit at the kitchen table with photographs of their past corn crops. Their pictorial record stretches over two decades.

In the good years, the corn towered overhead, growing up to 12 feet high. In 1983 -- remembered as a dry year -- the corn was only eight feet high.

The photo of the latest corn harvest well-illustrates the severity of last summer's drought. The corn was only knee-high. And the hay harvest topped off at about one-quarter the usual amount.

That means the operation of the Funkhauser family farm -- which centers around 150 head of beef cattle -- is in trouble. The farm has been in the family for six generations. A collection of iron skillets from yesteryear covers the kitchen wall, a testimony to the fact that this family has always kept going, even during the hard times. But times have never been as hard as they are right now.

"It has been dry in the past -- but not this dry. We have always had hay and feed to carry the cattle over through the winter. But this year we didn't fill even one silo. The cows didn't have anything to eat. The calves got stunted," said Funkhauser. The family has been facing a severe hay and feed shortage since last fall.

The Funkhausers own about 200 acres and rent about 300 more, all tucked into the valleys and mountains of West Virginia. Like most farmland in this region, it's not all adjacent but strung out into several parcels that are separated by a few miles. "There is good farmland here, just not much level land," explained Funkhauser.

His son, Garlin Jr., is the only one of several children that decided to stay on the family farm. Now he manages the day-to-day work while his father offers guidance and moral support.

Just when Garlin Jr. was considering selling off some head of cattle because he couldn't feed them, a local Lutheran pastor starting talking about hay donations. Farmers from other regions were donating hay to fellow farmers in the mid-Atlantic region.

On Thursday, the Funkhauser farm received a truckload of hay bales that will sustain their cattle for a few more weeks. Coordinated through the ecumenical coalition called Family Farm Drought Response, the hay was donated by farmers in Michigan. It traveled by railroad to Ohio then was trucked to the Funkhauser farm by a volunteer affiliated with the Church of the Brethren.

The drought disaster has brought a new urgency to the ongoing farm crisis in this area. "Nowadays, a lot of people have to get side jobs," said the older Funkhauser.

But his son has chosen to farm as his sole occupation. "So he's been hunting hay and tracking down what he could," said Funkhauser, looking proudly at his son. "He didn't want to quit."

But, even with the relief the hay brings, the younger man is worried about the future of the farm. The hay donation is only a temporary lifeline. And prices have been low for years. "And it's planting time and look at the price of fuel," he mused.

Since the drought, the financial burden is the only thing that seems to grow on the farm. Garlin Jr. has been trying to repair the old farm truck, scrounging for parts, making it last another year -- or at least until they turn the pasture on May 10, at last bringing hay for the cattle.

The Funkhausers are also deciding what to do about this summer. If drought forecasters are right, and the summer is dry for two years in a row, planting more corn is a losing proposition.

So the family is considering sorghum as a crop. It yields only 80% of the money that corn does, but it's more heat resistant. "The problem is -- too much rain will ruin sorghum," said Garlin Sr.

For the Funkhausers and many other farm families, the drought comes on the heels of multiple and longstanding problems that are part of life for today's family-scale farmers. They are used to facing low prices, competition from factory farms, skyrocketing fuel costs, and a burgeoning deer population that eats tender shoots.

But this year, the drought intensified the hardship on family-scale farmers. Some became eligible for federal or state assistance. Family Farm Drought Response has also coordinated hay lifts and other relief efforts. The group of faith-based disaster response agencies includes the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Church of the Brethren Emergency Response Service Ministries, Church World Service, Mennonite Disaster Service, and Lutheran Disaster Response. The United Methodists, Presbyterians, and the Orphan Grain Train have also contributed funds and volunteer time to assist farmers.

But even with such assistance, many family-scale farms are at the breaking point. The Funkhausers acknowledge that, if next summer is as dry as this one, they could lose their farm.

They talk not only about their own future but the future of family-scale farms. "I don't think it's going to get better for the farmer until the consumer goes to the shelf at the grocery store and it's empty. I've been telling my son to give up and go somewhere else to do something else. But this is what he knows," said Garlin Sr. "You know, they told me the same thing when I was young. I didn't listen to them either."

"Something about that old family farm gets in your blood and gets your heart going," he added.

Garlin Jr. nods emphatically before he goes out to work on his truck. "Sure, there are a lot of headaches -- but other jobs everywhere else have headaches, too. And this is all I want to do: farm."

Posted March 31, 2000

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