A Minnesota farmer checks his fieldsby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
The most recent crop report shows most Minnesota crops are above average. Crop prices are high, but so are costs like fuel and fertilizer. We last talked with farmer Jeff Mortenson in February, when he was making plans for the growing season and was nervous about rising costs. He's still nervous about the increasing costs of farming, but anticipating a good harvest.
Kennedy, Minn. — Here in the northwestern corner of Minnesota, waist-high wheat and barley ripples in the wind, the soybeans and sugar beets are lush and green.
As Jeff Mortenson wades into a wheat field, he plucks one of the long stalks that are just starting to form kernels.
"Looks like a pretty good week crop coming," Mortenson said. "I mean look, nice long heads, seems to be no disease pressure. Knock on wood we don't get a hail storm. But the row crops are behind. Our beans are way behind last year."
The cooler-than-usual summer has been good for wheat, but soybeans and sugar beets need more hot summer days. Mortenson's soybeans are only half as tall as they were at this time last year.
Still, it's been one of those summers when rains come at just the right time.
"It's probably been a month ago just here I got an inch and 3/10 in 35 minutes. Just a mile south of here the road was dry. It just started right here, you know, and that's farming."
But despite the potential for above average harvest and record prices, Jeff Mortenson says he's not turning cartwheels on the front lawn.
Sitting on the front porch of the farmhouse that's been home to four generations of his family, Mortenson pulls out a calculator and lists of numbers.
He's been nervously adding up the increased cost of fertilizer and fuel.
In two years nitrogen fertilizer has tripled. An increase of $410 per ton. That's about $35 dollars extra for each acre of wheat.
"If we have roughly 2,000 acres of wheat an extra $35 in fertilizer, that's another $70,000 we didn't spend two years ago." Mortenson said. "It's frustrating, but there's not a darn thing you can do about it. You need fertilizer. So, that and the fuel. You never really used to think about the fuel price. But now when you fill up a tractor there's $521 for a few days."
And those costs keep going up. Mortenson says this spring he waited to fill his diesel tank, hoping fuel prices would drop. Instead, they went up. That decision cost him $10,000.
Jeff Mortenson is also wrestling with the other side of the farm equation; when to sell the crop.
He's already sold part of the wheat crop, and hopes he didn't sell when prices were too low.
That's what happened last year. Like most farmers he sold his wheat before prices shot up to $20 a bushel.
"When it hit $5.00 I sold a big chunk," he said. "When it hit $6.00 I sold the rest. But when Joe Public sees on the front page of the paper wheat hits $20.00 they think every farmer has got 100% of their bushels sitting on the farm and they're instant millionaires. That isn't the case."
Still, last year brought a healthy profit, and it looks like Mortenson's bottom line will be strong again this year.
He doesn't want to miss an opportunity to catch up after years of losses. Mortenson scans the news every day for clues to the markets.
Did it rain in Brazil? Is China buying more soybeans? Should he lock in a price now, or wait and hope it's higher at harvest?
In a volatile world market, those decisions can mean the difference between a good year and a great year.
Mortenson says he's not counting his bushels before they're in the bin.
"It looks like we could have a decent crop with our wheat this year and hopefully the beets and beans come around," he said. "But there's so much out of your control. You feel like you're going to jinx yourself. It sounds dumb, but that's the case. You don't want to start spouting off and say, 'Oh, this is great,' and then something will come and bite you."
The day after we walked through his fields one was destroyed by a hail storm.
He's still hoping for a better than average year, but harvest is still a month away. Until then, Jeff Mortenson will spend a lot of time punching numbers into his calculator and nervously watching the sky.
- Morning Edition, 07/21/2008, 7:24 a.m.