DeKALB – Barry Smith, 61, has been a farmer for 40 years and he has never seen a spring like this one. His dad, 89-year-old retired farmer Jack Smith, said he’s never seen anything like it, either.
“This is the slowest start to planting I’ve ever seen,” Smith said. “The soil is so saturated, we’re a long way from where we’re supposed to be. … To say that it’s been difficult is an understatement.”
Smith, who farms about 1,000 acres in Sandwich and Somonauk, was lucky to plant about 40% of his corn crop during a break in the rain in late April. He says that he’s now down to “Plan F because everything keeps changing.”
“But even what I did plant is drowned out, yellow and disappointing,” Smith said. “I’m not real optimistic because even the fields I did plant are under water. I can only try to plant what I can, going around the water. Without a doubt, there are some fields I will not plant.”
Don Young, a farmer in DeKalb and Kane counties, said that lately he feels like a crisis counselor.
“It’s been a very difficult year,” Young, 50, said. He also works as a crop insurance agent for Country Financial in Elburn. “For the insurance companies, for farmers, I don’t think anyone ever dreamt that we’d be discussing something like this on this massive scale, Midwest-wide. It’s pretty amazing, not in a good way.”
In addition to working in the crop insurance business for 20 years, Young grows corn and soybeans on 2,100 acres. He said his phone has been ringing off the hook for a week and a half as farmers in northern Illinois struggle with the effects of one of the wettest springs to date. Farmers faced a federal deadline: By June 5, they had to decide whether to plant their fields and risk low yields in the hope that crop insurance would cover up to 85% of any loss, or face losing 1% of crop insurance coverage each day afterward.
On May 30, Mark Tuttle, 57, stood overlooking a flooded 1,000-acre field on his farm off Council Road north of Somonauk, listening to the frogs.
“It’s a disaster. There isn’t anything that can be done,” said Tuttle, a fourth-generation farmer and president of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. “Mother Nature’s in charge. A farmer can plant all he wants, buy the best varieties, but Mother Nature is the final say in everything. And this year she said, ‘No.’ ”
Tuttle grows corn, soybeans and alfalfa in his fields, and said corn by now should be about knee-high, but nothing has been planted yet because of the standing water in his fields that is 10 inches deep in spots.
Young said crop insurance covers up to 85% of crops planted, but it’s based on a 10-year yield history, individualized for each farmer. To start a claim, farmers send in field assessments to verify how much has been planted. An adjuster then goes out looking at grain bin scales in the fall to verify crop totals for any payout.
“If they average 200 bushels [an acre] of corn over the last 10 years, at 80%, they would be guaranteed 160 bushels,” Young said. “At $4 a bushel, that’s $640 guaranteed revenue for them.”
Prices for bushels have yet to be set, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture set bushels at $4 in February, Young said, adding that it’s too early to tell where they’ll end up by the end of the season.
“I think every farmer in the area is in the same predicament, trying to decide what to do,” Smith said. “Even if we do plant, it will be a shorter season, less yield and we’ll have a higher drying cost after harvest. We’re almost desperate to get planted. We’ve had so much excess rain, hazy, cloudy days and high humidity and no wind. Some farmers have done no field work this spring. It’s an unprecedented year.”
Tuttle said he expects he won’t get his corn planted at all. The impact of such a decision won’t just affect Del Monte – which receives most of his corn yield – but also will be felt by the consumer.
“Prices for food is going to go up,” Tuttle said. “We can’t feed as many hogs, so the price of pork is going to go up. If the price of soybeans is too high, there’s other types of oil we can use, canola, palm, sapphire. But corn is corn. I think people are really going to see it when come July they’re driving around hunting for sweet corn.”
“This year will definitely impact us down the road,” Smith said. “We’ll still have to control the weeds in our fields even if we don’t plant. We’re in this long-term, we’re thinking of what will happen after this year. There are no estimates of how this will affect us in the foreseeable future. We just don’t know what will happen.”