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Spring Planting in Midwest: Tough Times on the Farm

Farmers prepare for the big event, but parts of the heartland are still under water, trying to dry out.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 1998



New Douglas, Ill.

This is the season when, in the dead of the night, Ryland Utlaut climbs out of bed to check the weather. Soggy fields are a concern.

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"If I don't see any showers on the radar, that might make me sleep a little better," he says.

It's the time of year when Gary Knecht keeps himself busy with odd jobs: fixing fences or repairing buildings on his land.

"You figure you might as well go out and do it now to keep your mind off going out in the field," he says.

For rural America's farmers, this is the season of anticipation that verges on jitters.

Eager to plant the all important corn crop, farmers have to wait for fields to dry and the air to warm. Sometimes the weather cooperates and they get the crop in early. On rare occasions, it doesn't get planted at all, which can mean a huge financial loss. A good planting can set the tone for the entire year.

So as spring planting swings into full gear across the Midwest - and ahead of schedule in many areas this year - you can almost hear a collective sigh of relief from the countryside.

Especially from farm spouses.

"My husband is a very easy-going, quiet man," says Christine Bankson, who runs a corn and soybean operation with her husband in Hordville, Neb. But "when it gets to be planting and harvest seasons, his personality changes. The adrenaline is flowing. He's keyed up."

Every spring, farm spouses see the same cycle of pre-planting behavior.

"Yeah, they get kind of anxious," says Connie Plocher, whose husband raises crops and milks cows in Pocahontas, Ill. But "this area is a little less crazy than other areas of Illinois, where the mark of a good farmer is whether you're the first one in the field, whether it makes sense or not."

This year it has made sense for most farmers west of the Mississippi River to get in the fields as soon as possible. Dry weather has allowed many of them to start planting early. In Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, and South Dakota, they're well ahead of schedule.

Things are going so well in the upper Midwest that Minnesota has essentially finished corn planting, when normally less than half the crop is in, the US Department of Agriculture reported May 11. Even in the upper Midwest, which is usually late to plant, Michigan and Wisconsin farmers are ahead of the game.

But in the big corn states of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois the picture looks far sorrier. And far soggier.

SO much rain has fallen here in New Douglas, Ill., that Ross Hemann is hopping ... well, hopping to prove a point.

"When you jump and hear those bubbles spreading out in all directions ... it's wet," he says, landing with a splat on a puddle-laden cornfield across from his house. It will take days of warm, dry weather before this field can support a tractor and planter.

If Mr. Hemann doesn't get his corn crop planted in the next few days, his fall harvest will likely shrink.

The initial losses aren't too bad, he says, half a bushel per acre for every day of delay. In a normal year, his land may yield 150 to 160 bushels an acre.

But the longer the delay, the faster the losses mount. And if the corn isn't in by June 10, he probably will skip corn planting altogether this year. Frost would likely kill the crop before it produced a decent yield.

So far, Hemann remains philosophical about his predicament. Perhaps he can afford to be. As a dairy farmer, he relies on his milk check rather than grain harvests to pay the bills.

Farmers more dependent on grain production face greater pressures.

"You have to realize when it's your livelihood, and you start getting these delays. It naturally cuts back on your bottom line," says Mr. Knecht, a grain and livestock producer in Edwardsville, Ill.

"It does hurt a farmer to be watching and not be planting," adds Mr. Utlaut, who raises corn and soybeans with his brother in Grand Pass, Mo.

"We're not kicking the dog. But you just have to be patient."

Even on a dairy farm, challenges abound. After corn comes soybean planting. And so far, the alfalfa is too wet to harvest, Hemann says.

Thus, he might have to buy expensive feed for his cows, which adds to the general nervousness.

"They start worrying about this, start worrying about that," says Hemann's wife, Cindy. "There are times he gets going so hard you have to tell him to calm down."

But once spring planting is under way, he does calm down, right? "The time to cheer is when it's over and [the crop] is up out of the ground," she says.

But "you never stop worrying about it."