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HURRY UP AND WAIT

Farmers in the Midwest are playing a game again this spring that has become all too familiar with them over the last few years…hurry up and wait. Above average rainfall during March and April, coupled with the massive flooding in many areas, have prevented them not only from planting but even getting the dirt worked to plant.

Farmers are more dependent on the weather than those in any other occupation. It can make or break them. I knew when I went to work that I was going to be there for 8 hours and get paid for eight hours, five days a week. Farmers don’t have this guarantee. Their whole livelihood depends on the weather. A grower from northeast Indiana echoes the sentiments of famers all over the Midwest, “It’s been too cold and too wet, I haven’t turned a wheel this calendar year yet.”

Farmers spend most of the winter months, or at least those weeks since the first hint of spring is in the air, getting equipment and supplies ready to go. By now, they have greased, oiled, repaired, washed, waxed and gassed up all their equipment and are ready to rock and roll. There is nothing else to do but hurry up and wait. How frustrating!

It is easy if you are a farmer or a family member of a farmer to feel the anguish. However, this year everyone will feel the widespread effects of too much rain for Midwest growers. The trickle-down effect will hit supermarkets and we will all feel the impact. After all, farmers feed us all.

This whole mess started last fall with above normal rainfall during harvest in September and October. Farmers had a hard time getting their crops out last year. The excessive autumn rainfall saturated the fields and the moisture stayed in the ground all winter. There were record amounts of snowfall on top of that and then when the spring thaws came followed by more heavy rainfall this spring it proved too much for the ground to handle.

It’s hard to comprehend just how massive this flooding is and the damage it has ensued. It has literally submerged parts of the Midwest and the Great Plains under inches of water. Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin, some of America’s most productive farm states have declared states of emergency while parts of Iowa have been declared disaster areas. And these are just the hardest hit areas. Many other places in the nation are suffering these same conditions. Parts of Virginia received two months’ worth of rain in two weeks.

Remnants of barns, silos and grain bins are seen protruding from the waters. Not only are the structures gone, but also the grain and equipment that they held have perished. Fields and stockpiles of feed have turned to swamp. Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota and other states have drowned livestock. Sonny Perdue, United States Ag Secretary, received reports from the governors of Nebraska and Iowa that the loss of calves may reach one million. Early estimates are that floods have destroyed as much as 1.3 million acres of corn ground and 1.7 million acres of soybean ground in Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Tom Geisler, a farmer from Winslow, Nebraska, puts it in perspective, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I lost two storage bins of corn, the income from the livestock is gone and all the feed is gone.” On top of that, before the flood, he hadn’t been making any money from selling grain because of trade issues and low prices.

Farmers are used to going through good and bad years but the flooding may sadly put some over the edge. Reuters, an international news agency, reported that the loss of crops and livestock in Nebraska alone could total one billion dollars and would end some family farms.

Anthony Ruzicki from Verdigre, Nebraska, will probably be one of the casualties. His family has been farming the same plot of ground for five generations since the 1800’s. Floods literally destroyed his farmhouse, his alfalfa and cornfields with huge chunks of ice and killed 15 of his cattle. He told the New York Times, “There’s not many farms left like this and this will probably be it for us too. Financially, how do you recover from something like this?”

On top of personal hardship, the floods damaged bridges, roads and railways, leaving no way for farmers to transport whatever goods and stock they have left. It’s a real mess.

Farmers know, way before statisticians even publish their projections, what this means; prices will go up while profits go down. They also know that the ripple from this will include not only their seed, fertilizer and other supplies, but also food, gas, clothing and other necessities.

So, what does it mean for our local farmers in southwest Michigan and north and central Indiana? Even though their fields are still too wet to work, they are not flooded out…yet. That’s why they are nervous; they know that, with more rain predicted, it could be them. Hard decisions have to be made.

Do they opt to not plant at all this year? Sure, that would mean no income but it would also mean that fertilizer, seed, spray and gas were not wasted either. That also adds up to a savings. One farmer in central Indiana who has planned on planting half corn and half soybeans this year said that he will not plant any corn after the first of June because in past years of doing that, the yield didn’t justify the input. How many farmers are thinking along the same lines? This could also drastically affect the law of supply and demand during this year’s harvest.

There is also another scare that they don’t talk about. Many fear that they are getting all the precipitation for the year now and later in the year when crops really need it, there will be a drought. It seems like there is always too much or too little.

If there is any bright note to this at all, it is that all equipment should be in tip-top shape. This year there was time for all those projects that farmers had on the back burner but didn’t have time to get to. One farmer had purchased an extra set of saddle tanks for spraying and got them mounted on another tractor. Another farmer got extra lights mounted on his tractor and spray booms so he could spray at night if need be. Little jobs that were not necessary and that were put on the back burner got finished this year and also provided diversions while farmers wait to get in the fields.

On our last trek from Michigan to Indiana we saw evidence of these flood waters. We cross three main Indiana rivers, the Salamonie, Mississinewa and the Wabash. All three had not spilled out into farmland where we crossed them, but future rains would put them over the spill level. Although there had been a few fields planted in southwest Michigan where the ground was sandy and the water drained quicker, nothing was planted south of there.

So, for now, the name of the game is hurry up and wait. Of course, when…not if…when it does dry out, there will be a big push to get everything done at once, to pack a week’s worth of work into a couple days. Such is the life of a farmer, some things never change.

Images courtesy of Getty Images

Published on May 16, 2019

Grit Magazine

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