Minnesota crops 'variable' due to varied summer weatherby Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Cottonwood County, Minn. — Give farmer and crop consultant Steve Sodeman a challenge and he meets it.
These days, a big challenge is finding a great ear of corn in a weather-beaten southwest Minnesota farm field, where stalks are high.
Sodeman can pull it off, plucking a "championship ear" from the field that is a couple of inches longer than normal and bursting with kernels. But the big ones are few and far between.
If every stalk in the field had an ear like the one Sodeman pulled, the yield would be a bin-buster, maybe 260 bushels an acre. That would far exceed the record statewide average last year of 177 bushels.
Unfortunately, not every ear is as great as the one Sodeman cradled. A few rows over, he found a much smaller one, only two-thirds the size of the champion.
"It's pretty tiny, but it's going to grow," Sodeman said. "We hope that by, say, September 15 when it should be mature, that the kernels will get larger and larger."
Such uneven growth has sparked a lot of speculation this summer about the condition of Minnesota's major crops, valued at more than $12 billion. Too much rain, followed by too hot weather, has taken a toll on fields across the state. As a result, many farmers are anxiously awaiting a key report expected Thursday from the U.S. Agriculture Department, which sent workers to scout crop fields.
Like other cropland across Minnesota, the main problem in southwestern Minnesota has been downpours of three, four and five inches of rain at a time. Ponds formed in low spots, killing the plants immediately and leaving craters of brown in the green fields.
In other areas, the rain robbed the topsoil of nutrients as it soaked in, dragging the good stuff too deep into the soil for crop roots to reach. The remaining plants in such areas often are a sickly yellow, notes Sodeman, who said an airplane tour revealed the extent of the damage.
"I can tell you from 1,500 feet above it, that all those acres aren't that great," he said. "[There are] holes in the field, and a lot of yellow spots."
Sodeman said the best fields in the state probably are close to the Iowa border. But conditions worsen to the north. Central Minnesota has been hit from almost every weather angle: too much rain, strong winds that snapped corn stalks, even hail damage.
In west central Minnesota, crop consultant Paul Groneberg describes crops in his area as "variable." Groneberg said the best corn fields could produce 180 bushels an acre, but the worst areas may yield less than half that.
"Those areas that had water and wind, you might be looking at even 70, 80 bushels," he said.
Some observers, though, are more optimistic. University of Minnesota grain marketing specialist Ed Usset said from what he's seen, crop yields across the state might be a pleasant surprise.
"Minnesota in general looks good," he said.
Most of the state has escaped the worst of the weather damage, said Usset, a former grain trader. He also said Minnesota farmers won't necessarily be at a competitive disadvantage, as weather has been a problem all across the United States -- too much rain in some areas, but also drought in others.
Such concerns have raised doubt over the size of the U.S. crop this year, and coupled with heavy grain demand, have pushed corn and soybean prices into near record territory.
That will help even weather-damaged Minnesota farms make a profit, Usset said.
"You take a good crop, maybe not great, but you take a good crop and a great price you're going to have a good year," he said.
But even with those high prices, farmers are still very concerned about their crops.
Besides weather headaches, they also have had to deal with unusual insect infestations. Some parts of the state have seen above normal soybean aphid populations this summer.
To make matters worse, a new worry arrived in the last few weeks. Just when it seemed the rains would never stop, the weather across much of southern Minnesota turned dry.
"My last rain that I had at my house was July 16," Sodeman said.
As ironic as it may seem in this wet year, many Minnesota fields now need rain to reach their full potential.
- All Things Considered, 08/10/2011, 4:54 p.m.