`Farm Speak' Expresses Cautious Harvest Jitters In a Year of Mixed Results

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ON the day before Jim Moseley plans to start harvesting, he heads out to the fields in his Buick LeSabre. The cornstalks crackle with anticipation. It is shaping up to be an excellent crop year in Indiana.

But do not tell that to Mr. Moseley.

``See those tops?'' he asks, pointing to cornstalks where the tops have fallen over. Too much rain has weakened them. ``This here is extremely vulnerable. A 40-miles-per-hour wind and these stalks would be on the ground.''

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Never mind that this will be his best corn crop in two years. Never mind that the state is on track to have the second-highest corn yields in its history. Moseley, who served three years in the Bush administration, mostly at the United States Department of Agriculture, still has the harvest jitters like everyone else.

We drive to a soybean field.

``These are going to be pretty good,'' he concedes, walking up to the waist-high yellow-and- brown stalks. ``I can just tell by looking.''

In fact, they are excellent. If the official estimate holds true, Indiana will harvest 47 bushels of soybeans per acre - the highest average yield ever recorded by any state in the nation.

Moseley's thinking, though, is elsewhere. ``Hail would be disastrous,'' he says. ``Generally speaking, we don't get hail this late in the year. But my second year of farming....'' He goes on to describe the chunks of ice that ruined his soybeans that year.

Welcome to ``farm speak,'' a predilection to view God's bounty with the suspicion of a doubting Thomas and the pessimism of Job. In farm speak, the greenest field is ripe for calamity and disaster comes in many flavors. The word ``great'' does not exist, unless linked to something negative.

If a farmer says, for example, ``The crop is pretty good this year,'' he does not really mean that. The translation runs something like this: ``This could be my best harvest ever, but don't think I'm going to go bragging about it to you.'' ``I've seen better'' means ``The profit picture looks good this year.'' ``Terrible'' means ``I might just break even, but it's none of your business if I do.'' Some farmers hit hard

In all fairness, this has been a bad year for some farmers. The Southeast was hit by drought. West of the Mississippi, crops were washed away by flood or, more often, soaked with so much rain that some may not mature before the first frost. Frost has already hit Minnesota and Iowa.

``What's happening is that [the corn crop] is basically just shutting down,'' says Howard Holden, deputy state statistician for Iowa. Iowa will probably harvest a less-than-average corn crop this year. Already the state has lost nearly 4 percent of its corn acreage, most of it plowed under or idled by farmers who elected to receive 92 percent of their normal federal subsidy instead of harvesting an iffy crop from rain-soaked fields.

``In terms of the large scale, this is about as significant [a] variation in weather and conditions [as] I can recall,'' says Terry Francl, a senior economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. Half of the crop is doing poorly, half is doing well.

Farm speak handles this situation with aplomb. Farmer ``A'' in Indiana was never predisposed to talk about his record corn crop. But he is going to be especially tight-lipped if Farmer ``B'' in Missouri just lost all his corn. The problem comes when nonfarmers have to tell it like it is.

Take Ralph Gann, Indiana's state agricultural statistician. He is supposed to predict the crop as best he can. But when he published his 47-bushel-per-acre soybean forecast on Sept. 9, it drew howls of protest from the agricultural community.

``I ask you ... faithful readers....: Who in their right mind, that is in touch with reality in this universe, could actually believe that the state of Indiana will average 47 bushels per acre for soybeans this crop year?'' thundered commodity analyst Joe Grant in last Friday's Indiana Agri-News.

``I get called a lot of things,'' sighs the long-suffering Mr. Gann. Even in a normal year, his forecasts will be more bullish than 80 to 90 percent of the farmers he surveys. ``You see my dilemma,'' he says. He gets criticized even if, as usually happens, his predictions turn out to be correct. ``The thing that hurts us is that they will believe that we're perpetrating a fraud on the American farmer.'' Farm speak's deeper roots

There are financial reasons for farm speak. Farmers know that a scared commodity market is much more likely to bid up prices for their crops than an optimistic one. But farm speak has deeper roots than that.

``Farming is a battle with the elements,'' Gann says, ``and we tend to overlook that if we're not involved in it on a day-to-day basis. Until that combine begins to roll, they [farmers] very seldom acknowledge the potential that's truly there. I think it's a defense mechanism that says: `I don't want to get my hopes too high. I don't want to appear a braggart.' ''

Back in Clarks Hill, Moseley finishes the story about the hail storm and then catches himself. ``There's a decent crop growing there,'' he says. ``We are in wonderful shape compared to what those poor people have been through in the west.''

So we head back to the farm, past rows of decent crops, to see if the combine is likely to roll tomorrow.

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