South Dakota fields look like winter in July

Cows graze in dead pasture
Cows in north central South Dakota graze where there isn't much green. The pasture looks much like it would in the dead of winter.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

Drive around the fields near Bowdle, South Dakota and outside the window it looks like the dead of winter.

Wilburt Blumhardt, 81, farms around Bowdle. He talks about the crops as he drives. There's a combine and grain truck parked next to one field.

Wilbert Blumhardt checks fields
Wilbert Blumhardt checks fields in north central South Dakota. He says farmers plan ahead for dry years.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

"This is winter wheat," Blumhart says as he gestures to a field next to the road. "He (the neighbor) told me yesterday that they spent time trying to harvest it but they were so close to the ground that they picked up a rock and did $3,000 damage to their combine."

Nearby one farmer started a fire when his combine hit a rock. Several hundred acres burned before the fire was under control. Before the winter wheat harvest even started - it's over.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Blumhardt says the dry fields are all part of farming.

"This is just the nature of the beast out here on the Great Plains areas. These things are cyclicle and you should adjust for things like that" Blumhard says. "If there's anything I've learned in my 81 years it's that these things come and go. We will have periods of time when we'll have so much moisture and water that we'll have trouble getting into the field."

Blumhardt says there are two things to know about him. He's conservative and he's positive but there's more to this 81-year-old than that. He sits comfortably in his Ford pick-up. There's a walker tucked in the extended cab. He says his knees are shot and his weathered hands show the hard work it takes to make it in these parts.

winter wheat
A farmer tried to harvest what little wheat he cold from this field but because the wheat is so short he damaged his combine.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

The most telling sign of Blumhardt's beliefs may be his license plate. It reads NO TILL. It's a farming practice he's used for 25 years. He doesn't plow his fields anymore and come planting time the seeds are kind of drilled in on top of last year's stubble. It help keeps more moisture in the ground.

Blumhardt says every time a field is plowed a half-inch of moisture evaporates. The 81-year-old says no-till is a farming practice that saved his crops last year when it was dry. But now Blumhardt says the sub-soil moisture is gone.

"We're completely out of it," he says about the dust-dry soil. "There is nothing down there anymore. The plants went down deep enough last year to suck everything out. There's just nothing down there."

Blumhardt drives to a friend's farm near Eureka. There Greg Grenz looks at his hands as he talks about his 6,000 acres.

"I don't expect to get anything," he says. "A week ago I thought I had a chance but this heat came. My sun flowers are not up to my knees yet and they're budding and that usually means the elongate of the plant stops. My soybeans? I think if I put my fist on the ground they're not much taller than that. My corn? It didn't look so bad but now it's just wrapped tight. It's knee high but that's all I can say about it, it's just wrapped tight."

Stunted soybeans
Soybeans are short and not likely to grow much more because of lack of moisture. Farmers don't expect any yield off of these plants.
MPR Photo/Cara Hetland

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made a drought disaster declaration for 20 South Dakota counties. This allows farmers to cut hay and graze their animals on Conservation Reserve acres starting July 15th. But that won't help Greg Grenz. His CRP land is bone dry and brown just like his pasture land.

"If you walk out in that you wonder why you'd want to cut it," Grenz says. "There's a green sprig here and a green sprig there and everything in between is just trash, just trash. Cows will rummage through that and well fed cows won't do much with it but hungry cows will eat it."

Grenz sold off a hundred of his cows this month. Normally he thins his herd in October. He says he has enough carry-over hay to feed only about 70 cows through the winter. If things don't green up next summer he won't have anything to feed them.

Both Grenz and Blumhardt have federal crop insurance. They agree it's good for covering this year's planting expenses, that's all.

But in farm country, even when things seem bad Wilbert Blumhardt says it's never time to quit.

"I remember a gentleman telling me once many years ago at a meeting in Sheridan, Wyoming that farmers remember three good years, '21, '41 and next year. And I guess that's it," he shrugs.

If rain doesn't come in the next few weeks farmers in north central South Dakota will have to make some choices. For some there will be no harvest and they'll just have to wait for crop adjusters to condemn their fields ... until it's time to plant next year.