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Wet spring taking a toll on Midwest farmers

A farmer tills the soil Tuesday in a field north of Pennock. The unusually wet start to the spring is frustrating farmers across the Midwest who have so far been able to plant only a small amount of their corn crop. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

ST. LOUIS — John Reifsteck looks out at his muddy 1,800-acre central Illinois farm and wonders when he’ll get to plant.

Like so many other Midwest growers who were praying for rain during the recent drought, he’s now pining for enough sunshine and heat to dry out his soggy fields as the deadline approaches for deciding what he can even plant this year.

It’s a troubling scenario playing out across America’s breadbasket, where the U.S. Department of Agriculture says just 12 percent of the nation’s cornfields have been planted. That’s about a quarter of what would was planted by this date over the previous five years, and it marks the slowest start in decades in some states.

The numbers have been even worse in the biggest corn-producing state, Iowa, where only 8 percent of the corn crop is in the ground, down from 62 percent the same time last year.

The USDA says it’s the slowest planting pace since 1995 in Iowa, which was socked by a snowstorm last week.

It’s a stark juxtaposition from a year ago, when farmers jumped on an early spring and by this time had 69 percent of the corn planted, weeks ahead of schedule. Then by June, the drought began what became a summer-long intensification, although better crop technology still helped U.S. farmers reap one of their biggest corn crops ever.

The current situation frustrates farmers such as Reifsteck. Many of his acres are standing pools of water, and others are green with weeds that have thrived during recent weeks of rainfall and will require the fields to be reworked to ready them for planting, provided his tractors don’t get stuck.

Reifsteck knows that if he has to wait much longer, he may have to scale back on the amount of corn he’ll plant this year and go instead with more soybeans, which can be planted later, have a shorter growing season and proved more resilient last year to the punishing drought. Or he could take the risk of sowing the corn when the ground is still mucky and hope that using heavy machinery on the saturated soil doesn’t compress the ground so badly that it prevents the plants from developing strong root systems.

The later the planting, the greater the likelihood that yields will suffer from the time lost in the growing season. There are corn varieties that mature faster, nearly 30 days in some cases, but the shorter the time to maturity again means a lesser yield.

“We’re just waiting for it to dry out,” Reifsteck said from his farm in Champaign County, Ill. “For corn, the odds of diminishing the yield get greater the farther you go in May (before planting the crop). You’re basically squeezing it into a shorter season, and the odds of everything going well are pretty low. Once you get to June 1, you have to decide if you want to plant a lot of acres of corn” or devote more acreage to soybeans.

“This will be a difficult crop to assess, and yeah, it’s discouraging,” he said. “We’re just playing the odds. We just have to get something planted.”

The USDA recently estimated that U.S. farmers would plant 97 million acres of corn this year, which would be 100,000 more acres than last year, and that this year’s crop could produce a record harvest if yields are close to the trend line or above. But that’s if farmers can just get the crop planted: Mirroring Iowa’s issues, just 14 percent of Nebraska’s corn has been sown, 7 percent of Illinois’ and 22 percent of Missouri’s.

Given that early May typically is ideal for planting corn, farmers in water-logged areas may have to wait a week or more for their fields to dry enough to be planted. There’s incentive to make it happen: Farmers broadly already have fertilized the fields, making it difficult to let that cost go for naught.

If the planting gets delayed into June, growers could turn to the shorter-season corn varieties, switch some of the acreage to soybeans or declare the land unplantable and collect the crop insurance for that lost opportunity, said Christopher Hurt, a Purdue University agricultural economist.