View From the Cab

Watching Weather, Talking Land

Katie Micik Dehlinger
By  Katie Micik. Dehlinger , Farm Business Editor
Farmers Reid Thompson of Colfax, Illinois, and Ryan Jenkins, of Jay, Florida, are reporting on crop conditions and agricultural topics throughout the 2020 growing season as part of the DTN View From the Cab series. (Photo courtesy of Reid Thompson and Ryan Jenkins)

MT. JULIET, Tenn. (DTN) -- The heat index on Ryan Jenkin's Florida farm hit 123 degrees earlier this week.

"But it's good. Crops are growing," he said, adding that at this time last year a drought had them debating how much more money to put into the crop. There are some dry fields this year, but there have also been spotty rains. "There's still plenty of time for some drought, but right this second, if you took a snapshot in time, I'd say crops looks pretty good."

Jenkins, along with Colfax, Illinois, farmer Reid Thompson are reporting in each week as part of DTN's weekly View From the Cab series, a look at crop conditions, agronomic decisions and other aspects of farm life.

While it's been relatively dry in Jenkin's portion of the Florida panhandle and southern Alabama, rain brought a quick end to a blast of heat on Thompson's central Illinois farm.

"Where we needed rain, we've continued to get rain. We were cool most of the week. We had a couple of days of hot and miserable, but in general we're really fortunate," he said.

Last year, 1.5 inches of rain fell on the farm in the entire month of July. Most of his farms have surpassed that so far this month, and the forecast calls for more. "It's weird. We don't get that much rain in July," Thompson said.

DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson said depending on the weather station, rainfall totals in central Illinois range from 4 to 8 inches so far in July.

"Peoria's had 7.71 inches so far in July, 5.18 inches above normal. That's obviously beneficial to crops," Anderson said. "The next week has some additional rain of from .80 to 1 inch through Saturday, July 25. Temperatures will be warm but not stressfully hot with highs of 85 to 90 and lows of 67 to 71."

There's also a little more than half an inch of rain in the forecast for the Florida panhandle.

"There's a tropical disturbance around Cuba, but the track is indicated to go west toward Texas and not curve into the Panhandle," Anderson said. "Temperatures will be warm with highs of 88 to 91 and lows in the mid to upper 70s. That's a favorable looking pattern for this point in the summer."

Potential for a tropical storm has Jenkin's eyes on the Gulf of Mexico. "Anytime there's a storm in the Gulf, it bears watching because they don't always follow what the forecasts tell them to do."

While weather remains top of mind for both farmers this time of year, Jenkins and Thompson explained the dynamics of their local land markets. Both are highly competitive, but for different reasons.

RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA

Growing corn in the Florida panhandle is a risky proposition, but Jenkins grows some each year. He expects to start harvesting in the next week or so. He didn't plant any soybeans this spring, but is contemplating planting some behind his corn.

While it is still something he's experimenting with, in the past he's achieved some respectable yields, around 200 bushels per acre (bpa) on corn and 33 bpa on beans planted in August. "The other part of that that you'd find funny, even 20th of August, we're planting group 7 beans."

"But with the price, I don't know if I'll do it," he said.

Santa Rosa County, where Jenkins farms, is unlike most places in the United States. "I can take you in an hour's time or less and show you some of the most beautiful farmland in the country, and we'll just keep driving south and end up at the most beautiful beaches in the world."

The Pensacola area has a large military presence and is often called "The Cradle of Naval Aviation" because it's where all Navy pilots get their start. A lot of servicemen and women return when their military careers finish.

Between that, the beach and good schools, Santa Rosa County has one of the fastest growing populations in the state. As a result, the southern part of the county bordering the Gulf is very urban and growing, pushing its way north into forests and farmland.

With urban sprawl pushing north, farmers sometimes find themselves competing with real estate developers that can afford to pay more for the land and still make money. Land values are currently about $3,500 acre, but Jenkins says there's plenty of upward pressure.

"I'm very concerned," he said. "I'm almost certain that by the time my sons are getting toward the end of their lives, I don't know that there will be any farmland left in Santa Rosa County, honestly. It is booming."

Jenkins visited with a few other area farmers and they estimated about 75% of the farmland in their region is rented and, like land values, it's incredibly competitive. "You almost are lucky if you're able to rent land," he said, adding that FSA estimates the average rent in the county at about $90 an acre.

While no one wants government payments, he said the Market Facilitation Program and coronavirus relief programs have truly been lifelines and knows for a fact those payments are keeping some farmers in his area in business.

"Ag in America, in general, has got to have a good year soon. I think people are just rolling debt and rolling debt and rolling debt, hoping that this will be the year things work out," he said. "Very rarely do you get a good year where you have good yields and good prices. That's almost unheard of. You usually get one or the other and it just keeps you going. We've had a couple of years in our local area of bad yields and bad prices. Things are tight. That's for sure. But it's still better than a real job."

REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS

When it rains, Thompson catches up on his office work, like paying bills and keeping track of his landlord splits on crop-share leases.

"Apparently everyone else wants paid too," he said, adding that it's got to be tough to be an ag retailer in the summertime. "If you send me a bill in the middle of June, I might see it by July and I might get it paid by August, because if we're in the office an hour a week, I'd be surprised."

He started applying fungicide to his early planted corn and beans, and said both crops look fantastic, which is a surprise because the corn he planted the first week of April sat in the cold ground for weeks. "I was shocked. There was no disease pressure," he said.

The weather should allow him to get back to spraying Wednesday afternoon, and Thompson anticipates he'll be in the sprayer the rest of the month.

One of the downsides of running a lean operation with minimal labor is there's less time to prospect and build relationships for future expansion. Since returning to the family farm, he's been working to expand their acreage and thinks the farm could grow by another 1,000 acres or so without having to purchase new equipment -- with the exception of perhaps a semi-truck.

"There is a fine line between having the right equipment mix but also capacity so you're not stretching everything to the limit," he said. His big project this year is an expansion of his grain bin system, which includes a grain leg that will double their through-put capacity during peak harvest season.

"It's an expensive addition and improvement project, but without it, we're spending another 1 to 2 weeks a year harvesting in the fall because we can't get our corn dried. So, what's that cost?" he said.

More than a third of the farmers in McLean County are above the age of 65 and, at first glance, Thompson said that's a rather hopeful figure. However, improved technology means farmers are retiring much later.

"There's always been that mentality that there's this older group that will turn stuff over, but they don't because it's gotten easier" to keep farming. He wonders if the current financial stress will cause some of the 500- or 600- acre farmers to decide it's time to stop eroding their equity, "especially if we don't have the government assistance to continue to propel us to profit or breakeven numbers. I think that has Band-Aided a lot of things."

Thompson, who worked full-time as a real estate broker and farm manager for Hertz before joining the farm full time, still attends auctions and keeps tabs on his local land market. In western McLean County, where the ground is better, there have been some recent sales at $11,000 to $12,000 per acre. It's more like $7,500 to $8,500 in the eastern part of the county, where a moraine runs through. Land values have held pretty steady over the past year, he said.

While land values remain high, so do rents. Thompson, who is actively trying to grow his operation, said he's bid competitively on several farms -- proposing above average rent -- and didn't get them.

"I'm not interested in farming another thousand acres for the fun of it. I would like to make money on that thousand. I don't want to just cover more acres," he said. "There will be opportunities, it's just, are you going to be in a position to take advantage of them?"

Katie Dehlinger can be reached at katie.dehlinger@dtn.com

Or you can follow her on Twitter at @KatieD_DTN

Katie Dehlinger