For Illinois farmers, a record harvest

With mild weather and a bountiful fall, there's just one problem: Where can they store so much grain?

On the 800 acres John Sutter farms just east of Bloomington, rich black soil now appears below the remnants of corn stalks, the product of fresh tilling. The barn by his parents' sagging Victorian farmhouse is shut, the combine put away for the season.

Mr. Sutter finished his harvest early this year, bringing in all the corn and soybeans in less than a month. And he's thrilled - or as thrilled as a farmer, raised to believe that truly good news doesn't exist, can be.

"It's always nice to have a good crop," he says, ticking off the numbers: between 192 and 215 bushels of corn per acre, and 56 bushels of soybeans per acre, both record yields. "It was some of the best corn I've ever raised," he says.

Still, when the barber asked if he'd be buying a new pickup this spring, Sutter demurred. Fertilizer costs are climbing, fuel costs are up, land value is skyrocketing, and grain prices are low. "There's always something on the horizon," he notes. "Plus, I'm not an impulse buyer."

Even farmers are having a tough time being pessimistic, however. This was a year that broke all the numbers, when everything - for once - went right.

Here in central Illinois, the warm, dry, clear fall was merely the capstone of a stellar growing season. The summer was mild, with steady rain and few days above 90 degrees. And the USDA is predicting record grain yields in the state for both corn and beans. So much has been harvested - with prices low enough that few farmers want to sell immediately - that the only real problem has been where to put it all.

"I'm 52 years old, and have been farming full time for 25 years, and [these are] the best crops I've ever raised," says Gordon Stine, president of the Illinois Farmers Union. But, he adds, "it's not all gravy. A lot of this is going to be eaten right up. More bushels means you have to handle more, so stuff is more costly. You wear your machinery out faster, the more you have to truck and gas. But it's a good problem."

For farmers used to the vagaries of markets and mother nature, the past few years have been a blessing. The USDA's October prediction was for 180 bushels of corn per acre in Illinois - 16 bushels higher than the record yield set last year - and 49 bushels of soybeans per acre, up 3.5 bushels from 1994's record. The biggest surprise, say farmers, is having both crops do so well in the same year.

Grain aplenty

But the numbers have posed a challenge, too: Where to put so much grain? Prices are down nearly 50 percent from what they were last January, and most farmers want to hang on to their harvest until the market improves. As a result, storage elevators are overflowing, and there are piles of uncovered grain.

The state is already short 400 million bushels of storage capacity, says Chris Herbert of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, and is issuing permits for temporary ground storage.

"We ran for 36 days nonstop," says Steve Dennis, who manages a grain elevator in Bloomington. "One day I called all the way from southern Illinois to Wisconsin, and you couldn't get a truck anywhere."

A corn crop that normally takes seven weeks to harvest was finished in 35 days, Mr. Dennis says, sitting in his office by the huge metal elevators, which now just have a trickle of soybeans still coming in. He's exhausted, but glad for the farmers he's friends with. "They were out harvesting in their T-shirts."

For once, little to complain about

Sutter, for one, says these are the years that remind him what he loves about farming. He was bored in college, tried welding for a while but hated it, and came back to his roots 12 years ago. Like nearly all the farmers around here, he has a second job in the winter - doing plowing and roadwork for the state - but for more than six months of the year, he gets to be his own boss.

Every few months he and his wife and daughter drive up to Chicago to see the excitement of the city. "I love doing that, but I couldn't do that every day of my life," he says. "To me, commuting would be much more stressful than this."

Sutter finished his harvest particularly early this year, and had only to wrap up a few more days with the chisel plow, turning over the soil in his fields. He's already worrying about the big jumps in fertilizer prices he's seeing, and wonders if they'll go up even more if he doesn't buy it at the current high price.

He and other farmers joke about their famous pessimism.

"There's always a gripe somewhere, something's wrong," laughs Bryan Sharp, who farms 1,800 acres with his father just outside of Taylorville, Ill. "But we don't have a lot to complain about this year. You just don't have a harvest where you go straight through that quickly, and the grain just flows. Everything came together really well."

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