DTN Field Roundup

Farmers Prep for Planting Season Amid Tumbling Global Markets, Uncertainty

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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The view is a little dark for many farmers, as they head into the all-important planting season amid plummeting global markets and an unexpected pandemic. (DTN photo by Elaine Shein)

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- After last year, it was hard to imagine anything but weather being top of mind for farmers this spring.

Then along came 2020.

With a fast-moving pandemic sending markets plunging and scrambling global supply chains, farmers -- like most Americans -- are facing one of their most uncertain seasons yet.

"As much of the country and world had, we had a nightmare of a 2019 season," recalled Dan Lakey, who farms in the southeastern corner of Idaho. "From start to finish, it was the toughest mentally and physically I've ever been through, but 2020 seems to want to challenge that title already this year!

"I am afraid for the economic impact of COVID-19 and the demand destruction we will see going forward," he added. "I am worried for those in agriculture who had a terrible 2018, a horrendous 2019 and were needing a home-run in 2020 that I don't think we will get."

Lakey is part of the Agronomy Advisers, a trusted group of farmers and ranchers across the country that DTN consults for monthly updates on fieldwork and current events in agriculture. This year's advisers are a geographically diverse bunch, stretching as far west as Idaho and Colorado, as far east as Maryland's Eastern Shore and from Texas up through Minnesota.

In the first Field Roundup of 2020, they spoke of navigating a suddenly deeply unsettled economy and society, while readying for the annual task of planting this year's spring crops.

Across the Great Plains and southern and eastern U.S., farmers reported an unseasonably warm winter, which has allowed fieldwork to get underway in some places. "We've had no recorded snow at all here in southwest Indiana, which I believe to be a record," marveled southwestern Indiana farmer Scott Wallis.

Many in the Eastern Corn Belt, which saw some of the wettest weather in 2019, and the Western Corn Belt, which experienced the historic "bomb cyclone" last March, are facing major field repairs. Wallis will soon be using a dirt pan to fix erosion scars where he farms in Indiana. Jarett Andersen, who farms in east-central Nebraska, is eyeing fields full of ruts from last year's rushed harvest.

Other advisers reported that cover crop termination, herbicide spraying, fertilizer applications, tillage and grain hauling were at the top of their to-do lists. Seed supplies were tight in some places, particularly for corn and some newer herbicide-tolerant soybeans, such as Enlist E3 and GT27.

"Seed supply is getting tight in certain maturities, but nothing that can't be managed," noted southern Ontario farmer Dan Petker. "Growers are understanding that the same issues in grain production this fall (low test weight, non-black-layered corn) also had an influence on seed production and quality."

On the eastern shore of Maryland, a warm, dry winter has farmer Jennie Schmidt prepping to plant a week earlier, in mid-April, starting with corn and then tomatoes, soybeans and green beans.

Spurred on by a dry fall and moderate temperatures, farmer Marc Arnusch is readying to plant malt barley -- both for the grain and seed -- and spring wheat, which supply local craft beer and liquor producers in his region of north-central Colorado.

Early planting is always a risk after a mild winter, since snap freezes can arrive deep into the spring months. No one knows it better than Idaho's Lakey, who grows wheat, barley, mustard, flax, field peas and quinoa at 6,000 feet, where the air temperatures can be fickle. "Being at such a high elevation, we typically deal with snow during planting and harvest, and we freeze nearly every month of the year; it just depends on how severe it is on how much it affects our crops," he said.

Many more advisers reported wetter conditions stalling fieldwork, with farmers from Indiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Idaho and Oklahoma eyeing soggy acres and brimming water tables.

With DTN's meteorologists and others forecasting a wet spring pattern ahead, some of these growers are getting deja vu.

"After mudding out a crop in 2018, mudding one in in 2019, mudding the latter half of the 2019 crop, and now what's shaping up to be a wet spring, I'm weary of mudding and gutting," said eastern Arkansas farmer Charles Williams.

Zack Rendel is still dealing with the repercussions of endless rainfall in northeastern Oklahoma last summer and fall. This year he has zero acres of wheat and canola -- a first for his farm.

"I'm hoping it's not a repeat of 2019," he said. "Last year we had 83 inches of rainfall. So far, for the year 2020, we have had 6.5 inches, and more on the way the end of this week and next."

And of course, before spring crops can be planted, some northern Midwest growers must first finish their 2019 harvest. Minnesota farmer Jeff Litrell and his son still have soybeans left to harvest, and Justin Honebrink said standing corn is still common in west-central Minnesota. A few cornfields still sway unsteadily in Ontario, too, Petker added.

Above all these to-do lists and weather worries looms the recent rapid spread of COVID-19, a new coronavirus recently declared by the World Health Agency to be a pandemic.

The resulting tumble in global markets has not spared agricultural commodities, which was Wallis's greatest fear.

"The biggest concern I have right now is the grain markets reacting to the fear of the global economy crashing due to the virus or the oil price or whatever it is next that has nothing or very little to do with agriculture or supply and demand," he said.

In northwestern Ohio, Genny Haun is trying to keep a step ahead of the markets' slide. "We have done a large amount of forward contracting, and are fortunate to be in an area where end users are close -- all of our corn goes into the feed business and such producers are within 40 miles," said Haun.

Other farmers face fewer local markets, and will need more than just an end to the pandemic to boost demand, noted Tyler Young, who farms in east-central Illinois.

"I need an E15 mandate and meat consumption to increase, not another handout," he said. "We are in corn country; there are very few livestock and alternative crop outlets here."

Even without the black swan that is the new coronavirus, Arkansas's Williams wasn't optimistic that markets would recover quickly in 2020. "I think we need to consider that a phase-one trade deal isn't like throwing a switch," he noted. "Trade doesn't just normalize overnight. There are residual effects of market disruptions."

Nearly every agronomy adviser agreed that they were bracing for yet another mentally and physically tough season, but Lakey added that he feels certain most will persevere.

"I worry about the mental stress that we are all under, all across the states and particularly for our neighbors to the North across the Canadian Prairies; they are in the fight of their lives," he said. "I am extremely worried but, as farmers, I'm confident that we will do what we always do: We will persevere, innovate, put our noses to the grindstone, our shoulders to the wheel and this too shall pass."

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

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Emily Unglesbee