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USDA: Farmers May Have Good Crop Year

(Friday, Feb. 21, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- WASHINGTON (AP) -- Farmers could grow a record corn crop and increase their wheat and soybean production this year if the weather is better than in 2002, the Agriculture Department's chief economist said.

Keith Collins said on Thursday that corn production is expected to be 10.3 billion bushels this year, compared with the 9 billion bushels grown last year. A record bumper crop of 10.1 billion bushels was grown in 1994.

Collins also predicted wheat production will be 2.07 billion bushels, an increase from the 1.95 billion grown last year. Soybeans are projected at 2.82 billion bushels, compared to last year's 2.75 billion bushels.

Crop yields tumbled last year because of drought and flooding, but prices went up because of the smaller supply.

However, farmers probably will see crop prices drop this year because ``a rebound in yields and strong competition from traditional and newer competitors will likely cause a pull back in prices,'' Collins said at a conference on the future of agriculture.

Collins, though, cautioned that it's difficult to know whether his projections will come true because of the ongoing drought in the West.

Consumer prices probably won't be affected by the increase in corn, soybean and wheat production, Collins said. However, it could affect meat prices, he noted, because much of the corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock.

Beef production may begin to rebound this year and beef exports may expand, but if the drought continues, ranchers will struggle. Collins warned that higher beef prices at the store could hurt consumer demand, adding to the cattlemen's woes.

Farmers suffered widespread damage from drought and flooding last year. Last week, Congress approved $3.1 billion in relief, but some lawmakers argued the need for it would have been avoided if more farmers had sought federal crop insurance and if the insurance were effective.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said Thursday that the program will be reviewed by department officials who will pinpoint problems and consider solutions.

The agency ``needs to identify the underserved producers,'' she said. ``We also know there are concerns with coverage in regions that are facing multiyear droughts.''

In other issues, Veneman said her office, along with the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, is working on new regulations for so-called pharmaceutical crops, those genetically modified to grow medicine.

``We want to make sure the science does not outrun our regulatory system,'' Veneman said.

She declined to specify what kinds of restrictions the government is considering, but said officials want to protect food crops from becoming contaminated with pharmaceutical crops.

Veneman cited one incident last year in which Texas-based ProdiGene Inc. failed to completely remove experimental corn -- genetically designed to produce protein for a pig vaccine -- from a Nebraska field. Some of the leftover corn mixed with soybeans headed for market, but the government blocked it from entering the food supply.