Minn. farmers hope to salvage unharvested corn crop

Unharvested corn
Leota, Minn. farmer Lon Anker holds two ears of corn that were not harvested this fall.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

As a brisk wind sweeps along ribbons of snow, Lon Anker stops on a dirt road next to an unharvested corn field and stares down long rows of summertime memories.

"About 100 acres," he said. "The corn stand is good; it's looking good now yet."

The corn on Anker's southwest Minnesota farm is part of an estimated 5 percent of the state's unharvested corn, which has a total value about $200 million. That's a lot of corn scattered across the state, a chunk of farmland roughly 10 times the area of Minneapolis.

That unfinished business for some Minnesota farmers resulted from a wet fall, followed by snow storms. They hope to harvest the corn this spring and still salvage some profit from the fields.

On a recent day, Anker led the way from the road through knee-deep snow to the corn field where the leaves on the stalks rattle in the breeze. A Christmas storm dropped 20 inches of snow, and strong winds piled it into deep drifts.

The biggest problem is the edge of the field where the corn acted like a snow fence. The drifts there are as tall as the stalks.

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"Field loss will be where the biggest drifts are," says Anker. "The snow will take the ears and strip them and they'll fall on the ground." Just beyond the drifts, the snow level drops well below the ears. The stalks in that part of the field look undamaged. The corn on the 100 unharvested acres is worth about $60,000. Overall, Anker expects to lose about 7 percent of the ears on those acres to winter damage.

"Maybe once every 15 years that it gets to be to this extreme."

That's significant, but if Anker is lucky the loss will be more than offset by a big advantage to leaving the grain in the field. The individual corn kernels will dry down by next spring, saving him the cost of doing the job with expensive gas burners.

"Drying costs about $100 an acre," says Anker. "We decided to take it out in March or April and let it dry naturally in the field. And we'd just take the loss on what gets snowed under."

Farmers all across Minnesota are in a similar situation. How those corn fields fare this winter will be an important factor for the state's corn industry, a roughly $4 billion a year business.

It's unusual to find this many unharvested corn fields in the wintertime, Northstar Commodity chief grain analyst Mark Schultz said.

"Maybe once every 15 years that it gets to be to this extreme," said Schultz, who thinks 2009 will be a year to remember.

Lon Anker
Leota, Minn. farmer Lon Anker.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

Schultz said most of the Midwest has weather problems. North Dakota farmers have the worst situation right now, with more than a quarter of their corn crop still in the field. Depending on the weather, he said, the unharvested corn could cause farmers more problems in a few months when it comes time to plant.

"A lot of snow and then a wet spring, that would be your worst case scenario," Schultz said.

That combination of events could hurt this summer's crop because farmers would have to wait for fields to dry in the spring before they could finish last year's harvest, he said. That would push back spring planting, possibly affecting yields.

With those concerns, the heavy December snows are a troubling start to winter. But farmers like Lon Anker are hoping the weather eventually breaks in their favor.

Standing in deep snow, Anker picks an ear of corn. He hopes it's a preview of what he'll find when he finally harvests this field next spring.

"So far, so good," Anker said.

The golden ear is filled with symmetrical rows of corn kernels. If the winter is not too rough, and the spring weather is good, Anker's farm could still see an above average yield. Even if that doesn't happen, Anker jokes there's one other benefit to the standing corn.

"It's great for the wildlife, like the rabbits," he said. "They can climb on the snow banks and get at the ears. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to get at the ears"

Pheasants, deer and other animals are likely to find shelter in Anker's field. That will cost him some corn, but it doesn't seem to bother the southwest Minnesota farmer. He's still betting that when the time comes, he'll find enough corn in the field to make a rare springtime harvest worthwhile.