Business & Economy

Some U.S. farmers get a reprieve at end of challenging year

A corn field lies soggy in Chisago County
A corn field lies soggy in Nessel Township, Minn., on May 29, 2019. Spring planting season across Minnesota has been interrupted, delayed and in some places nearly canceled by early spring flooding and late spring rains, leaving farmers worried and forcing them to decide whether to plant late, plant something else or not plant at all.
Eric Ringham | MPR News file

Many farmers in the Midwest and South whose planting this year was interrupted by wet weather are getting a reprieve, though a few Northern states have seen their harvest prospects go from bad to worse.

Minnesota and the Dakotas have seen snow and rain in recent weeks that have hampered an already difficult harvest. But much of the Corn Belt has somewhat recovered from heavy rains and flooding in the spring and summer, with experts predicting good yields from what did get planted, though it's still a far from stellar year for most farmers.

In its Oct. 10 crop production report, U.S. Department of Agriculture bumped up corn yields for Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and North Dakota, and left the forecast for Kansas and Nebraska unchanged. North Dakota's predicted corn yield was increased by 1 bushel per acre, but that estimate was made before the state was hammered by as much as 30 inches (76 centimeters) of snow. Many crops in North Dakota remain under snow and are now being trampled by snowmobilers and hunters.

"Barring any changes, corn farmers are generally saying it's a pretty decent crop, although nowhere near the records in the last couple of years," said Chris Hawthorn of the USDA's National Agriculture Statistics Service. "The acreage is down, but what's planted is looking good."

But some farmers aren't so hopeful.

"Farmers are all in the same boat and I want to get off of it," said Randy Richards, who farms near Hope, in eastern North Dakota. "It looks like the Titanic."

Steve Nicholson, a grains and oilseeds analyst with Rabobank in St. Louis, believes the reality is probably somewhere between the doom-and-gloom predictions of struggling farmers and the USDA's estimates. He said everyone who planted row crops — corn, potatoes, soybeans, wheat, cotton and peanuts, to name a few — has had problems this year and "not one of those commodities has been a stellar performer." But he also thinks the markets would be a lot more unsettled if a total disaster was looming. Corn futures, for instance, would have been down, he said.

"I think it's probably a little bit overblown," Nicholson said. "If this is such a big deal than the markets would have reacted a lot more than they have."

Either way, the average consumer probably won't see what's happening in the fields reflected in prices at the grocery store. "In terms of the cost of your box of cereal and other stuff you find on the grocery store shelves" it's unlikely to see much change, said Andy Jung, economist for The Mosaic Company in the Twin Cities.

He noted that harvest fortunes depend on "location, location, location" and called the Dakotas and Minnesota "the poster child" for poor progress. The USDA report lists the corn harvest in North Dakota at 1 percent complete, compared with 12 percent on average at this time of year.

Overall numbers in the USDA report showed the soybean harvest about 25 percent finished, when it would normally be half done. The corn harvest is 22 percent done, with normal being close to 33 percent. Most of the wheat is out of the field, except for some areas in North Dakota.

Longtime farmer Bob Metz, in South Dakota, has a hard time remembering when conditions have been this challenging.

"When you get 1.2 inches of rain and snow and you feel lucky, that tells you where you're at," Metz said.

Richards said that for farmers in North Dakota to get back into the field to harvest their crops, they would need a warmup that melted the snow, followed by a hard freeze that would allow them to use combines without getting stuck. He said he has two neighbors who still have wheat in their fields — unheard of at this time of year.

"I've been doing this for 47 years and I'm at a loss for words at what Mother Nature has done to us," Richards said.

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