Drought in the air

Published 11:25 am Wednesday, April 18, 2012

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Story by Matt Peterson, photos by Eric Johnson

Thick dust blew down gravel roads and across fields last Thursday, at times making it nearly impossible for farmers and rural commuters to see.

“I hope it rains — because it’s not late yet,” said Pete Tangren, who farms with his son, Dave, near Dexter.

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Pete, who began farming in 1974, couldn’t remember the last time conditions were this dry while planting corn.

“The subsoil moisture is non-existent,” he added.

While Dave planted a nearby field on Thursday — the first of the year for the Tangrens — perhaps the only saving grace was an auto-steer system, which kept Dave exactly on course in his tractor, despite billows of dust blocking his view. Just down the road, a dust devil half the size of a wind tower snaked across a field.

According to the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis., the Austin area is 8.9 inches below average precipitation since Aug. 1, 2011. Throughout southeastern Minnesota, that deficit ranges from 8 to 15 inches fewer than normal. Nearly 50 percent of both topsoil and subsoil moisture levels across the state are rated as “short.” About 13 percent of Minnesota’s topsoil and 18 percent of the states’ subsoil moisture is rated as “very short,” as well.

Though some farmers have already been planting for more than two weeks, Pete repeatedly said he doesn’t want to rush himself as the season is still early.

But among super-dry conditions, the weather hasn’t been as warm as Pete would like, either.

“I have difficulty getting really cranked up until it warms up some,” he said.

Despite the fact that farmers are planting as much as five weeks earlier than last year, Pete isn’t banking on a favorably long growing season.

“The growing season is not going to be that much longer,” he said. “… Nothing really has changed, just the weather. It’s dry.”

Even light rains during the past days were a welcome sight for farmers, so seeds can start sprouting. However, NWS officials said the threat of cold may still linger — not something Pete or Dave wanted to hear.

“I’ve seen little tiny corn that tall get frozen and die,” Pete said about 2- to 3-inch sprouts.

Don’t expect the Tangrens to get down on their luck. All local farmers are dealing with the current conditions, and Pete has been through worse. His first-ever year of farming, back in 1974, was his worst.

“That was absolutely the worst year I had farming,” he said, and added a killing frost on Labor Day was the main factor.

But the challenge, uncertainty and potential for success seems to outweigh the burdens.

“Every year is different,” Pete said. “That’s what makes farming so much fun. It’s always interesting.”

Ever-increasing corn

Regardless of weather, U.S. farmers continue to plant more corn than ever, and that holds true in Minnesota.

“So many farmers are talking about planting more and more corn acres than last year,” Pete said. “I’m sure it will be more this year. I’m sure of that.”

While worldwide demand for corn boosted corn prices to roughly $8 per bushel last year, supply is now catching up. Farmers will still plant more corn than ever this year, so the price has fallen back to the still-favorable $6 range.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Minnesota is slated to plant another record number of corn acres: roughly 8,700,000. That’s 600,000 more acres than last year and the second year in a row corn acreage has increased. Because of that, bean acres have declined the past two years, as well. But bean prices are on the rise, currently forecasted at more than $14.50 per bushel into May, according to farmfutures.com, an app that Pete keeps handy on his smartphone.

Staying optimistic

Despite the swing in the market, Pete sticks to his guns, just like always. He plants roughly half corn and half beans to play the odds, regardless of the markets.

“I’m not smart enough to outsmart the guys in Chicago,” he joked about the board of trade.

Despite the recent drought and U.S. Drought Monitor indications that it may persist into summer, precipitation is difficult to forecast, especially the farther out one forecasts, according to NWS Meteorologist Andrew Just.

Pete doesn’t fully trust forecasts, anyhow. There’s no way to outsmart Mother Nature, he said.

“If you could tell me what the weather is going to do, then I could tell you what the proper thing to do is,” he said.

Given the dry conditions, the Tangrens are still in good spirits, too. Pete has farmed enough seasons to wait and see what happens, and it’s much too early to complain.

    Minnesota Planted Acres
2010                   2011                   2012
Corn:            7.7 million        8.1 million        8.7 million
Soybeans:    7.4 million        7.1 million        6.9 million

    U.S. Planted Acres
2010                     2011                    2012
Corn:            88.2 million        91.9 million        95.9 million
Soybeans:    77.4 million        75.9 million        73.9 million
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture.