A computer screen hangs beside Sherwood Knutson as he steers his combine through a soybean field near Canby. It shows a map of the field Knutson is in. The computer instantly measures the soybean yield for each part of the field. The yields are recorded on the map in bright red, yellow and green.
"Your different colors tell you what the yield is in different parts of the field. Where you see the reds, that's higher 'droughtier' soil and that's our lowest yields. They're down in that 25 bushel area. The darker greens are upwards of 50-55," says Knutson.
The map is mostly yellow and green coloring in a good soybean harvest for the southwest Minnesota farmer.
Far better than what he might have imagined when temperatures topped 100 degrees in July.
"The last six weeks or so I suppose we've had upwards of eight inches of rain. We've kind of gone from one extreme to the other," says Knutson.
Recent warm weather makes for nearly perfect harvest conditions. It's dried the soil so it can support the combines. Knutson hopes to finish the soybeans in a few days. Then he'll start on the corn.
He thinks the corn was hurt most by the dry mid-summer. He expects some parts of his farm will yield far below normal because of the excessive heat. He says it's a year when yields vary greatly from field to field. That's something farmers all across the state are experiencing.
John Monson is director of the U.S. Agriculture Department's Farm Service Agency for Minnesota. Monson says the drought hurt northern Minnesota more than the south, hay fields more than row crops.
“We've kind of gone from one extreme to the other.”Sherwood Knutson
"It was the livestock producers who had the real disaster I think this year, in the northern part of the state," says Monson. "They were the ones that had no pasture available, there was little hay. Second cutting was essentially gone, much of the third cutting was gone."
Monson says farmers in roughly half the state are eligible for drought assistance, mainly low interest loans. The maximum loan is half a million dollars at three and three quarter per cent interest. Monson says so far only a handful of farmers have applied. He says the pace should quicken once the harvest is over and farmers begin planning for 2007.
"Generally we'll see them come into our office between January through April, after they get their books together," says Monson. "They'll try to identify where their needs are the greatest. So generally it's for operating purposes, to plant next year's crop and so on."
Monson says right now it's too early to put a dollar figure on drought losses. For farmer Sherwood Knutson, this year's dry weather was more of a nuisance than a disaster. He expects dry weather from time to time.
One thing that helps get farmers through drought is advances in plant genetics. Knutson says today's corn and soybeans have drought tolerance built in.
One area where he'd like to see more improvement is in grain prices. They're as variable as the yields he's finding in this soybean field. Wheat prices are great, corn so-so, soybeans depressed. He's most hopeful about corn, Minnesota's largest cash crop.
"I think it's generated by the high demand with ethanol plants coming on-line," says Knutson. "Low prices increase demand, and we're just barely producing what we need."
Corn prices have been low but recently began to pick up. They've increased more than 10 percent in the last couple weeks. It's a hopeful sign in a year when farmers have seen more than their usual share of ups and downs.