View From the Cab
Harvest, Hopes and Hurricanes
Editor's Note: As we pressed the button to post this report, Hurricane Sally was bearing down on the Florida Panhandle and Ryan Jenkins, who is such an advocate for his farming region and agriculture. We are thinking about the safety of his family and crops, along with everyone else in the path of these storms.
DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- Reid Thompson's harvest will likely start with the equivalent of a practice lap this week. The Colfax, Illinois, farmer has a new drying system he'd like to put through a qualifying heat before harvest reaches full throttle.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Sally was throwing caution to the wind and had put the hammer down on Florida Panhandle farmer Ryan Jenkins, who farms near Jay, Florida. He was sitting with peanut and cotton crops exposed to unrelenting winds and rain.
Jenkins and Thompson are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series. The farmers have been reporting on crop conditions and other aspects of farm life since May. This is the 21st report of the season.
Weather has dominated these reports and this week is no exception. Thompson's crops gasped for a drink through August and were poured a generous last call in September. DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson sees central Illinois skies remaining favorable for harvest over the coming week.
Jenkins is no stranger to what he calls "hurricane season," but that doesn't change the pain associated with natural disasters. He opened the week with one of the best crops in the field that he can remember and within days is left wondering what will remain and if another storm will drive in on its heels.
Sadly, DTN's Anderson could do nothing to relieve the worry. "Hurricane Sally is definitely bringing heavy, flooding rain into the Southeast," Anderson said. "Rainfall reports in the Florida Panhandle since midnight, Wednesday, Sept. 16, run from 11 to 30 inches. There are also many reports of flash flooding in the Florida Panhandle." The National Hurricane Center is calling this "historic and catastrophic flooding."
Sally is only moving at about 5 mph toward the east-northeast -- the equivalent of a slow jog. This means that even more rain and wind is likely through the rest of Wednesday.
Read on as these two farmers discuss weather and also a bit of politics and how the pandemic has been touching their lives.
RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA
There are times that test the resolve, and Ryan Jenkins has been facing it this week. He's ducked and dodged 19 named hurricanes so far this season, but last week it became evident Sally would not be denied.
"The National Hurricane Center has been busier than one-armed paperhangers," Jenkins said, trying to muster his typical jovial self on Monday. It's difficult to find humor this week, though.
September is historically the most active time for Atlantic Ocean basin tropical activity. This year has broken records for how early named storms have formed.
Sally was taking her sweet time, too. Jenkins had received 3 inches of rain by Tuesday afternoon, and warnings were escalating that portions of the Florida Panhandle could see historic rainfall totals of 20 to 30 inches and winds of 85 mph or more.
Jenkins' text to DTN on Wednesday morning indicated that the family was physically safe, but the storm damage to crops was much worse than even he expected. "We will suffer significant loss," he texted.
The farm headquarters are near Jay, Florida, but he also farms across the line into southern Alabama.
Jenkins put together an informational YouTube video ahead of the storm, talking about how the storm might influence his crop. View it here: https://www.youtube.com/….
He told DTN on Monday that a few people in the area had already started digging/inverting peanuts. "There are several ways to handle things if you know a storm is coming. As peanuts start to mature, the vines begin to deteriorate. If disease sets in and leaves fall off, the peanuts fall off. So, there's a critical time to get those out of the ground to maximize our yield," Jenkins explained.
"When a hurricane is coming, you have to decide if you are better off with the peanuts dug and on top of the ground or still in the ground. We made the decision to leave them in the ground -- we had good plant health, the vines and stems looked good.
"If those vines were nearing the end of their life, we might have decided it was better to have them above ground," he said. A large rainfall could lock a grower out of fields for a week, and if vines are heavy with disease, that could result in many of the peanuts dropping off in the ground and big yield losses, Jenkins added.
Dug peanuts can withstand some rain if healthy, but if vines are dry and diseased, a long harvesting delay can also lead to harvest losses. Lots of rain at harvest can also lead to aflatoxin, which can drastically reduce the price paid for peanuts, Jenkins said.
"Hopefully, our peanuts were in good enough shape going into this that we won't have to worry about that much," he said.
While every farm has a different breakeven, Jenkins figures a $700-per-acre cost for producing peanuts -- which means he needs to produce 4,000 pounds per acre (2 tons) to break even. Yields for his farm typically range from 4,500 to 5,200 pounds per acre.
He's also worried about the cotton crop as bolls are just beginning to open. Large amounts of rain or sustained wetness can cause the cotton to fall from the boll or the seed inside the boll to rot or sprout. Cotton that is rained on can become stained.
"Cotton that hasn't opened should be fine, but then we have to worry about wind. Before this storm, we were sitting on a bumper crop. Prices were depressed, but we were thinking we might be able to break even because we had such a good crop coming on," he said.
Wind can cause cotton plants to lodge. Even if bolls aren't open, they tend to rot if they come in contact with the ground. High winds can also cause bolls to drop.
Crop insurance is an important safety net, but one Jenkins purchases hoping never to use. He opts for 70% coverage for the farm. He said enterprise pricing doesn't work for him since the farm is spread out over many different tracts of land with a wide range of yield histories.
This year he took advantage of a new hurricane insurance program that fills the gap and increases coverage from 70% to 95%. It triggers automatically if there are sustained hurricane-force winds from a named storm in the county.
As winds swirl, thoughts of pandemics and politics mostly take a back seat. However, Jenkins' wife, Debra, works in the medical field and he has one son in college and another in high school, so the presence of the problem is always there.
"We're trying to be socially responsible, but thankfully, it has not influenced us too much other than some inconveniences," he reported. He has noticed the need to plan ahead if a farmer needs machinery parts, especially on some specialty equipment.
Last week he took time to bring a newly elected county commissioner to the farm. "We have such an urban influence in our county, and it is important that we keep telling our story.
"It's the kind of relationship building we have to do in agriculture if we want people to understand what we are up against," he said.
REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS
Rollercoaster rainfall is what Reid Thompson has experienced this season. His central and east-central Illinois farms recorded "lots" in April and May and barely a drop the bulk of June. Then came record rainfall in July followed by little to nothing in August. Now, 4 to 5 inches have fallen during the first half of September.
It's enough to give a farmer weather whiplash. "Those September rains really helped our late-planted beans. I pulled samples on them this week and wow, holy beans ... they're like real beans," Thompson exclaimed.
"It was not too late, to say the least," he added. Some of the beans have put on additional foliage and were showing some signs of lodging, which could cause some dry down and harvesting issues.
Thompson expects to open his first cornfields this week to work any glitches out of the new grain setup. "If it is around 26%, we'll probably just keep harvesting," he said.
If the weather has been a rollercoaster, so has the year 2020. Thompson said there's no question the pandemic has disrupted life in many ways.
Both of his children are in a daycare setting. His wife, Heather, works as manager of digital communications for Growmark. So, during the shutdown earlier this year, they tag-teamed child care responsibilities.
"The boys have now been back for 16 weeks without incident, and I will say our providers have done an amazing job. Still, other facilities in our area have had positive tests," he said.
Thompson noted that the family has felt the invasiveness of the virus as it has squashed inclinations to be social. Even those events that are held can feel awkward.
They've also felt the reprieve lifting of obligations has brought and watched family time come back into focus.
"I do worry about the small businesses in our local community and how they will survive this. So many good people have seen their life's work disrupted," he said, specifically mentioning a small-town German restaurant that people often travel from afar to visit.
He's also seen the church and other local organizations rise to the occasion and find innovative ways to address the pandemic instead of being paralyzed by it. "Still, we've taken communion once since March," he noted.
From a straight commodity agriculture standpoint, the fallout has been minimal, Thompson said. Bin parts have been tough to come by, but he attributes that more to going to repairs from derecho destruction. "Sometimes we've patched back together rather than try to count on a replacement part figuring to wait until this all passes.
"The economic tail on this could be long, though, and I wish we could just get back to business in this state. I'm not discounting that the virus is real, but I'm also not sure that we're not going to have to learn how to live with it," Thompson said.
Plant shutdowns earlier in the crop season stalled seed bean deliveries, causing planting delays. Those September rains made that issue fade as late-planted beans look to have as much or more potential than those he planted early this year.
Still, Thompson is growing XtendFlex soybeans -- the latest three-way herbicide trait from Bayer -- for seed production. The new technology was expected to have a full commercial launch in 2021, but the trait does not yet have import approvals from the European Union (EU). Thompson can't help but wonder if some of the hold-up on those approvals can be pandemic related.
Last week he learned the seed will be subject to a totally stewarded harvest. That places more harvesting protocols on growers than were originally planned.
"It's not going to be a simple harvest," Thompson said. "Moving between fields with combines and grain carts and trucks -- everything becomes an orchestrated event. We are looking at having to manage our grain system a little differently.
"There are also restrictions that have to be managed the following year with volunteers. We also have about 10 to 15 acres that are used for isolation that can't go back to soybeans next year," Thompson said.
He noted that the politics of trait approvals becomes tiresome, particularly to farmers with their foot on the pedal. "Farmers aren't patient when it comes to things that seem impractical," he acknowledged. "But some of this comes with seed production, and we know that being able to segregate and do the right thing also adds to our value as farmers."
Thompson, who is active in the Illinois Farm Bureau, is also watching what is going on politically as November elections.
"The simple answer is, I'm paying attention. I was pleased to see President (Donald) Trump sign an order allowing the ethanol industry to use 15% ethanol blends in 10% blend pumps.
"That was good news for farmers," he said.
Pamela Smith can be reached at email@example.com
Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN
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