View From the Cab
Negotiating Weather and Landlords
DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Reid Thompson's eyes are on the skies. The Colfax, Illinois, farmer has a heck of a soybean crop in the field that will likely need another splash of precipitation to fulfill its promise.
Ryan Jenkins has a more wary eye on the weather. The Jay, Florida, cotton, corn and peanut farmer wants to miss the winds and water that often sweep into the Panhandle this time of year and play havoc with hopes.
"It probably sounds crazy, but I almost wish my crop didn't look this good. I keep thinking something is bound to happen," he said, as he scouted peanut fields for possible insect invaders.
Derechos, hail, wildfires -- the 2020 crop season suddenly seems fraught with weather worries, as if life wasn't crazy enough. What comes next is the too-often-asked question of the year.
Jenkins and Thompson are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series, a weekly look into current crop conditions and other aspects of farming life. This week the two farmers also discuss how they attract rental acres and some practical things they do to keep existing landlords happy.
Read on to learn more about what is happening in their world this week.
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
Ryan Jenkins had loopers on his mind as he scouted peanut fields this week. Also known as soybean looper, the light green colored caterpillar is easily identified by the way it compresses its body or "loops" when it moves.
Scouting for loopers is important because they have unusual eating habits and often start feeding from lower and inside the canopy, then move up and outwards. By the time they are discovered in the outer canopy, heavy feeding has often occurred.
The peanuts are still a month or more away from harvest. "If you lose the leaves on top, you're losing the peanuts beneath," he said. "So, I want to keep the plant above ground as healthy and lush as possible."
Jenkins' crop is well watered and can take some feeding, but loopers aren't the only defoliators at work. Determining the threshold for spraying presents some complicated scenarios.
All those decisions are swirling through his mind and Jenkins sometimes uses such real-life examples on his YouTube videos to ask: What would you do?
"These videos are aimed at non-farmers to show that farm input and other management decisions can be complex, and that the farmer is really trying to make the best economic and environmental choices," he said.
Insects are at least one thing Jenkins can proactively manage. Armyworms and stinkbugs are on the watch list in cotton.
"I don't worry about afternoon thunderstorms. We have a 20% chance of those any given day of the week. Serious hurricane season starts in September and that's more troublesome."
DTN's Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson sees rain in the forecast almost every day for the Florida Panhandle/Southeast Alabama area with a total accumulation reaching close to 3 inches during the next 10 to 12 days.
"There are a couple of tropical disturbances in the Caribbean Sea that may also have something to say about how the next week or so evolves," Anderson said.
Jenkins has dodged most of the weather disasters so far this year but feels like he is tempting fate as much of his corn crop remains in the field. Last week he received notice the only corn-drying facility in the area had experienced a fire and wouldn't be able to accommodate his crop.
"So, we're letting the corn dry down in the field. Meanwhile, the unloading auger gearbox was starting to make some racket and 3.5 inches of rain fell. So, we decided we might as well make the combine repairs while we are waiting for drying of corn [and soil]," he sighed.
He was able to harvest his corn test plots and got something of a surprise in the process. There were six different seed treatment trials -- in furrow, starter and several different chemical combinations. The testing is done in cooperation with Agri-AFC, a joint venture between the Alabama Farmers Cooperative and WinField United.
"We documented everything we did throughout the season and you could see to the row where we used these products. The treated areas outgrew everything and had much better color and looked beautiful. But at harvest, only one of the six treatments showed a slight yield advantage.
"It's just one year of results, so we'll try again next year. Working with an agronomist to weigh, document and follow the plots throughout the year gives us some real numbers. Without those trials, it would be tempting to believe those treatments were working based on a visual test.
"We'll see what another year shows, but pretty doesn't pay the bills," he said.
Most of Jenkins' rental acreage is cash rent. Showing that he is caring for the land and doing the right things goes a long way toward keeping landlords as customers, he believes.
Jenkins Farms rents from 10 different individuals. "We keep in touch with them. If they live in the area, we do things like offering to help them with little projects at their home. We communicate about how the crops are doing and what prices are doing.
"If they used to have a garden and aren't able to have one anymore, we share ours. Every Christmas we take everyone a ham and a card thanking them for entrusting us with their land.
"It's about building relationships, tending those relationships by genuinely caring for the people," he said. "When you do things like keeping areas Bush-Hogged and sprayed, they notice.
"And, being that neighbor and partner is so important, because I wouldn't be farming if it weren't for these individuals. Only a small portion of what we farm is owned by family," Jenkins said.
While he would like to continue to grow the business, farmers in the community are close knit and he has strong feelings about how to go about adding more land.
"Everyone here knows everyone else. If a tenant-landlord relationship ends and someone is seeking a new tenant, then they can come to me and we can talk.
"If they are interested in beginning a relationship, then we'll go over all the things we do -- such as how we grid sample all of our fertilizer and use prescriptions.
"What we do not do is purposefully raise rents or actively solicit for ground. It's just not worth it to me. We're just passing through this life and I feel as though we always need to treat people the way we want to be treated," Jenkins said.
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
The big news at Thompson Farms this week was the completion of a grain system expansion after two months of construction. The facility won't sit idle for long as the beginning of corn harvest in this area is less than a month away.
From four- to six-tenths of an inch of rain fell across the farm early last week and was followed by another inch on Saturday, Aug. 15, that gave most of his acreage a good drink. It was welcome as he wants that ear to keep packing on dry matter.
"Our early-planted corn is starting to dent," said Thompson. The later-planted corn is still in dough stage.
The Aug. 17 USDA-NASS crop progress report showed Illinois corn in dough stage was 81% compared to 51% last year and the 5-year average of 78%. Corn dented was 21% compared to 9% in 2019 and slightly behind the 5-year average of 33%.
Corn and soybean conditions in the state were both rated 76% good to excellent, showing slight declines in condition scoring from the week prior. "We were lucky to catch that shower on Saturday -- not everyone in the area got that.
"We're at critical pod-fill stage and continued heat is a concern in beans," he added.
Digging during bin construction uncovered a surprisingly good soil moisture profile, which corn can access. Soybeans, he figured, will need more moisture to finish strong.
DTN's Anderson said Thompson's general area is running more than an inch below normal on its precipitation measurement since the first of August. "The next week is mainly dry too with about 0.15 inch of rain in the 7-day forecast. The moisture chances don't improve until the week of Sunday, Aug. 30, when more frequent showers may produce rainfall of up to about 2/3 of an inch.
"That may be of some benefit to the soybean crop, but probably not the crop-finishing dose of moisture he's hoping for," Anderson said. Thompson does have pivot irrigation capabilities in the one field that is most-often drought challenged.
Last week Thompson discovered one of his landlords pulling yield samples and taking a look at the crop. "He apologized and I just laughed because part of that crop belongs to him. We love it when our landlords take an active interest," Thompson said.
That sometimes includes hosting landlords and their families at the farm. In cases where there are new generations coming in the wings, Thompson said showing that the farm also has the same scenario is good.
Facebook and a website are tools they are starting to use more, especially as landlords may not live in the area or have heirs far afield.
While Thompson lives in a competitive cash rent area, several of his leases are share-type arrangements, which require more tending and communication. That can get complicated when dealing with a dozen or more landlords, even if some are family members.
"When we started buying wholesale three years ago, it was pretty easy because we just started with nitrogen," he said. "But as we moved to buying other inputs wholesale, there's been a learning curve on who gets what bill and prepay arrangements, for example. Before the landlord just sent the check to the co-op."
Thompson worked for a decade as a real estate broker and farm manager for Hertz before coming home to farm full time. On a couple of properties he is dealing with professional farm managers on the land he leases. "
That's been an interesting twist. "It makes me careful about filling out paperwork and making sure I get it in on time so I'm not a hypocrite," he admitted.
While he is interested in farming more land, he's not interested in merely adding acres. There needs to be a profit at the end of the year, he said.
More than one-third of the farmers in McLean County are above the age of 65, but technology is allowing farmers to operate longer. What the current farm economy does to those plans is another question. Still, rental rates in that county can be steep.
Ford County, where he also farms, isn't "all flat and black" and can be drought prone. Tenant turnover is a bit higher and rental rates often a tad lower.
Just as tenants differ, so do landlords. Thompson said he's not been farming long enough to turn his back on opportunity, but some factors come into play when deciding how to structure rental rates or leases.
Is the farm organic? Is it tiled? Do waterways need repairs? Are there certain herbicides they don't want to use? "That's not to say we can't accommodate all that, but we have to take into consideration the efficiencies lost when we do something completely different," he said.
He's already lined out details and signed an agreement for 2021 with the landlord who he discovered scouting in fields last week. "He has a farm manager, but it is so neat how he stays in touch with what is going on. For example, not only does he say use cover crops, but he's paying -- investing -- for a portion of the cost this year because he noticed how they held the soil in an area that has been prone to washing," he said.
Sometimes improvements are made whether the landlord chips in or not. "We've paid for portions of tile or done the install, while they pay for the materials, for example. But we do it because it is the right thing to do and not just because it is going to save us $10 to $15 per acre.
"Particularly in share agreements, we like to show that we are also invested in the property," he noted.
Distance is something he looks at hard when evaluating whether a property is worth leasing. "I'm not going to drive 20 miles to farm three acres. But will I drive 20 miles to farm 400 acres with that same person ... you bet," he said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.Smith@dtn.com
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
(c) Copyright 2020 DTN, LLC. All rights reserved.