Farmers get early start after warm March

Published 7:00 am Friday, April 2, 2010

By Mark Steil

Minnesota Public Radio News

Leota, Minn. — It didn’t look possible a few weeks ago, but Minnesota farmers are already in their fields plowing and preparing for spring planting.

Despite a wet fall, and then heavy snow, a dry, warm March got farmers going much earlier than anyone could have hoped for. For some, the early field work includes a rare spring harvest.

On warm, windy, days, the signs of a dry spring have spread out across the countryside.

A road grader smoothes out the winter ruts of a gravel road. Nearby a red tractor pulls a plow and a tank of fertilizer through the stubble of last year’s soybean crop.

In a field near the small town of Leota in southwest Minnesota, there’s a more unusual sight, something usually limited to the fall. Lon Anker drives his combine through last year’s corn stalks that he never harvested because of early heavy snow.

The corn stood untouched in the fields all winter long. Anker is pleased to note that the corn he’s picking quickly fills the storage box on the big machine.

“Doesn’t take long to get the bin full,” Anker said.

The Minnesota corn harvest is important because it represents 30 percent of Minnesota’s nearly $16-billion agricultural economy.

Many Minnesota farmers failed to finish last year’s harvest because of wet field conditions. Despite a long winter of deep snow and strong winds, Anker’s corn field only suffered minor damage.

Heavy snow drifted over the corn stalks on the edge of the field, knocking some down. Though Anker likely lost 10 or 15 percent of the corn in those problem areas, he’s surprised that even where the corn plant fell over, he’s often able to catch the stalk with combine and salvage the ear. His neighbors are finding the same thing.

“There’s a few other people bringing grain into the elevator, too, now that didn’t get done,” Anker said. “And they’re very pleased with the stand-ability of the stalks and the quality of the grain too.”

The quick warm up this year is a big help, Anker said. Even though the spring harvest means extra work, the early start should allow him to plant this year’s crop on a normal schedule.

When farmers get their planting underway, it looks like they’ll be seeding about the same number of acres to corn and soybeans as last year. The only significant change in the state’s major cash crops will be in wheat.

The U.S. Agriculture Department predicts Minnesota farmers will plant 5 percent less wheat this year compared to last year.

Farmers are reducing wheat acreage because the crop hasn’t been as profitable in recent years as other grains, and that may be true of all the major crops this year, said Ed Usset, a grain marketing specialist at the University of Minnesota.

“I think most producers would tell you, we’re right on the cusp of profitability and not being profitable,” said Usset, who works for the Center for Farm Financial Management.

If prices continue to decline, farmers could lose money on their crops this year. Corn prices alone have declined nearly 20 percent since the beginning of the year. Usset said the problem is there’s a lot of grain in storage.

“I think from a U.S. and worldwide perspective our stocks situation is comfortable, more comfortable than a year ago,” Usset said.

That big supply drives down the price paid for corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops. Farms harvesting now in the southern hemisphere are also affecting prices. South America especially has seen a big harvest of soybeans and corn.

A lot could change though before Minnesota farmers sell this year’s crop and find out whether they make money, Usset said. The main variable is weather. If it’s too dry or too wet this summer, that could reduce the expected size of the U.S. crop, driving up prices.

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Austin on 90.1 FM or online at MPRnewsQ.org.