It was a cold, rainy May 21, and Roger Hadley had just been talking with his son about further adjustments they could make to catch up on planting 425 acres of corn and 500 acres of soybeans this spring.
With the exception of a couple of fields near Churubusco, “I don’t know of anything planted in Allen County,” said Hadley, who serves as the Indiana Farm Bureau’s Allen County president and as a farmer dealer for Beck’s Hybrids. “It’s the worst-case scenario I can ever remember.”
Data released a day earlier by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed only 14% of the state’s corn had been planted, compared with an average of 73% at the same time of the month for the past five years, and only 6% of Indiana’s soybeans had been planted, compared with an average of 43%.
What happens will affect Indiana’s economy. The latest Census of Agriculture showed the state with 15 million acres in 2017 on 56,649 farms, which produced more than $11 billion in agricultural products.
Business Weekly’s 12-county reading area had 12,721 farms with 2.4 million acres.
What happens with planting during the last week of May and first two weeks of June also “could raise prices on grocery store shelves,” Hadley said. “And when things get better, seldom do they ever come down.”
Planting progress was no further along than Allen County in fields up to 50 miles to the east and south of it, although to the west, some planting had taken place on high, sandy sod around South Whitley, he said.
North of Allen County, he knew of planting that had taken place on sandy soil in DeKalb, LaGrange and Steuben counties, but near Angola temperatures had dropped so low this month there had been frost warnings out for the area at one point.
The main obstacle to getting crops in was the compaction from heavy equipment that would result in yield loss if planting was attempted on soil that had not dried out sufficiently.
“If it was dry, even though it’s in the upper 40s now, we’re going to plant; the temperature would not stop us,” Hadley said.
“Our biggest concern right now, probably along with the fact of the rain, is with these kinds of temperatures we’re losing growing-degree days. And we only have so many growing degree days in a year.”
Purdue University’s corn specialists say optimal yields with regular varieties of the crop are possible if it gets in by May 20, and with that window passed, the extent of the yield reduction would depend on how soon farmers could get out and plant, said Bob White, the bureau’s director of national government relations.
“Indiana’s way behind; it doesn’t make any difference where you’re at in this state,” he said. “There’s areas of Indiana that have virtually nothing planted at this time. Some of our farmers have maybe 8% to 10% done.”
Michigan farmers are further along with planting. “With the sandier soil they can get out there a little quicker because it’s faster draining,” White said. In terms of corn and soybeans planting progress, “Indiana is one of the worst, followed by Ohio.”
Corn fields must be planted by June 5 and soybean fields must be planted by June 20 to get full crop insurance coverage on them.
“With June 5 looming and the forecast calling for rain every day this week, and then eight days to dry out, we may not be able to get into the field to get anything planted until we’re right up on the crop insurance date,” Hadley said. “We’re talking about what our options might be.”
Farmers don’t like to let any farmland lay idle, he said, but there is a prevented-planting insurance tool that is available for cases where the planting deadline for full coverage cannot be met.
If the abnormally wet, cool weather continues, it “could drive a lot of folks into that prevent-plant option this year, where we normally just wouldn’t do that,” Hadley said.
With a March 15 deadline for purchasing crop insurance, a farmer must decide whether to buy it with the prevent plant option “before you really know what might happen,” he said.
A recent online INFB survey of its farmer members showed 70% were unlikely to take prevented-planting measures.
“It’s a difficult decision because the crystal ball isn’t always shining brightly for you,” White said.
And farmers will be deciding what to do in the context of very low prices for corn and soybeans, partly as a result of a recently escalated trade war and partly as a result of swine flu outbreaks that have decimated herds in Asia.
The USDA and some private agricultural forecasting organizations have estimated 40% to 50% of China’s swine population was wiped out by the flu.
“China by far produces the most pork in the world and by doing that uses a lot of soybeans,” White said. “Even if the China trade war was settled tomorrow, the market for soybeans would not be what it used to be.”
With responses from across the state, 72 percent of farmers taking the survey said the current trade environment’s impact on commodity prices was jeopardizing their farm operation.
Commodities have seen sharp price declines since the United States and China imposed tariffs on each other last year. In April 2018, soybeans sold for around $10.40 per bushel, but now they are in the $8 range. Prices also are down for corn.
“The agriculture industry is dealing with a number of issues that impact a farmer’s bottom line right now,” Randy Kron, INFB president, said in a statement.
“There’s a surplus of commodities in the market due to higher than average yields, and over the last five years farmers have seen a 50% drop in farm income. Add the additional impacts of trade wars and tariffs to the existing issues, and the financial situation has become even more concerning.”
When asked in the survey about their level of satisfaction with the trade climate and the importance of a U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, 56% of respondents said they weren’t satisfied, and 65% said USMCA ratification was very important.
“Farmers’ patience on the trade situation certainly seems to be stretched thin,” Kron said. “It’s crucial that the administration finalizes and implements the USMCA, and that they continue to work toward additional agreements with Japan, the European Union and other nations.
“It will take many years to replace the export market that was lost during the trade war with China,” he said.
“Farmers understand the need to take corrective action regarding some of the trade inequities with China and to address the Chinese disregard for intellectual property rights. But if agreements aren’t passed and additional efforts aren’t made, some Indiana farmers will not be able to weather this storm.”
As far as surviving the weather’s impact on planting goes, crop insurance would not pay enough make farmers whole, but could get them through this year, to quite possibly farm next year, White said.