Success of fall harvest depends on the weatherby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Good Thunder, Minn. — Minnesota farmers have dealt with just about every weather condition you can think of this year -- including floods, drought and hail. Despite those problems, there's still a chance for a bumper crop -- if the weather cooperates for the rest of the growing season.
Allen Marble, who grows corn and soybeans on his farm near Good Thunder in southern Minnesota, is a case in point.
His crops look just fine. The corn is tall, the soybeans are a deep green. But a closer look shows signs of trouble. Marble points to ominous looking cracks zig-zagging through the dry topsoil.
"It'd be very easy to lose a crescent wrench down there a little ways right now," said Marble.
That's only a slight exaggeration. In some places, the cracks are an inch wide. Marble says it's been dry. His farms gets occasional showers, but it's just enough to keep the fields green.
"We're at a pretty good situation here, but it could go the other way in a hurry," said Marble. "We're about five inches behind for the year."
That's put his fields in a precarious situation. If the rain falls short over the next month, his crops will decline, reducing yield. But if the precipitation returns, he could still have an above average crop.
"Rain makes grain," said Marble.
Marble says even with the dry conditions, he feels a little lucky. He says if you travel north of his farm near Good Thunder, across the Minnesota River, things are worse. It's even dryer there and crops are showing moisture stress.
A band of farmland from the Twin Cities west to the South Dakota border is rated as a moderate to severe drought area.
Even the parts of the state that started the year with flooded fields are looking for precipitation -- places like the Red River Valley in northwestern Minnesota.
"Since mid-June we've pretty well dried up," said Bryan Hest, who farms in that region. "And it's kind of ironic that right now we could really use a nice soaking rain."
Rain was the last thing Hest was looking for during last spring's difficult weather, when the Red River flooded to record levels. He remembers he still had corn to harvest in March. He picked it just before the flood hit, driving his combine through a foot of standing water.
Then came the long wait for the floodwaters to recede and his fields to dry. Hest said it was early June before he finished spring planting.
Owing to the late start and a cooler than normal summer, Hest says all his crops are maturing behind schedule. He hopes to harvest what looks like a good wheat crop in the next couple of weeks. His corn fields are also slow, two to three weeks behind normal.
The weather is just one headache farmers are wrestling with. They're also concerned about the price they'll be paid for their crops. Those prices have been falling, according to Michael Swanson, an agricultural economist at Wells Fargo.
Swanson says prices are down compared to last year, and grain prices have fallen below what it costs some farmers to produce a crop.
"They might not be getting back their costs of inputs, at this point," said Swanson.
But he says each farmer is different. It all depends when they bought their seed, fertilizer and the other supplies it takes to grow a crop.
Those "input" prices have fluctuated widely over the last year, and in some cases farmers who delayed purchases got the best deals and have a better profit outlook.
The same thing happened with grain prices. Long gone are the record prices of last year. This summer, grain markets have fluctuated on either side of the break-even point. Swanson says many farmers used the market's high points to lock in profitable prices on the futures market for this fall's crop.
But there's still the harvest to get through before they start selling. Southern Minnesota farmer Allen Marble says he's not only worried about drought, he's also concerned about the cooler than normal summer temperatures.
"If we get a killing frost in September we're going to be short on corn," said Marble.
And probably soybeans as well, since they're also maturing behind schedule.
Marble says he can see lots of potential in his crops, but also possible problems. Temperature and rainfall will decide which comes true. And those weather conditions will be a major factor in what sort of profit farmers like Marble make this year.
Farmers will get a better idea on the size of the crop when the USDA releases its harvest prediction on Wednesday.
- Morning Edition, 08/10/2009, 7:20 a.m.