U. S. Corn Farmers In Muddy Race With Mother Nature

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Farmer Monty Whipple held the problem of the eastern U. S. Corn Belt in the palm of his hand: a ball of mud, densely compacted. His nearly 400-acre farm, about 90 miles southwest of Chicago in LaSalle County, was filled with mud.

Several fields less than a mile down the country road had as much as a foot of standing water.

Farmers in the Midwest prefer to have their corn crop planted by now. The rule of thumb is that for each day planted after May 15, a bushel of corn is lost per acre.

“In the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘If I don’t plant it today, it’s going to be another week’,” Whipple, 58, said during an interview last week.

“They say farming is nothing but a big gamble – gambling on prices, gambling on the weather,” Whipple said as he threw the ball of mud into a field that stretched to the horizon. “In the long run, you make a good living at it.”

Illinois and Iowa are the two top corn-producing states in the United States.

This planting season, the weather has split the Corn Belt in half along the Mississippi River.

In the west, 81 per cent of Iowa’s crop was in the ground as of May 17. In the east, only 10 per cent of Illinois’ corn had been planted, 11 per cent in Indiana, 22 per cent in Ohio, according to the U. S. Agriculture Department.

Frequent and heavy rains have slowed progress this spring. Farmers in the eastern Corn Belt now face smaller corn yields or the option of planting faster-growing soybeans instead.

Still, U.S. farmers this year are forecast to plant the third-largest corn crop on record at 12.09 billion bushels.

Expensive and frustrating crop

“It’s going to be the most expensive and frustrating crop,” said Ken Beck, 48, who farms 1,500 acres of corn and 500 acres of soybeans in Ophir Township, Ill. “We’ve had the highest input prices and everything is still in the bag.”

Beck said he does not plan to switch to beans because he already paid for and applied fertilizer on his fields.

Prices of fertilizer, seeds and other farmer input costs went up last summer along with corn, which hit a record $7.65 per bushel on June 27, 2008.

Beck locked in fertilizer prices around that time on the premise that corn and fertilizer prices would keep rising while fertilizer supplies dwindled.

But corn and other commodities prices tumbled within a month of hitting the record as the global recession deepened.

“We all knew it couldn’t last. But it was like the housing bubble – it was good while it lasted,” Beck said.

He estimated his input costs at $600 to $700 an acre. If his crops yield 200 bushels of corn and he sells at roughly the current price of $4 per bushel, he can net $100 per acre.

Forecasts for last week called for more favourable planting weather. “It certainly looks like a break in the weather is coming. It could be

the driest week for the central crop belt for this growing season so far,” Mike Palmerino, a DTN Meteorlogix forecaster, said last Monday.

“Mother Nature already took about 45 bushels per acre. I know that,” Beck said.

“This next week will tell a lot,” said Whipple, speaking while taking a break between sharpening the blade for his riding lawn mower and delivery a truckload of last year’s crop to a grain elevator.

“We are never comfortable until (the corn is) in the bin.”

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