Area farmers, in the early stage of fall harvest, are buoyed by the promise of strong yields and rising grain prices.
“I’m sure there are folks struggling, but harvest season is such an optimistic time of year and we have a good crop,” said Harold Wolle, who farms with his son Matt near Madelia.
Tom Hoverstad, a scientist at the Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca, expects a superb fall.
“I think we’re sitting on a very good crop in south-central Minnesota. In Iowa it started good but then they had those storms come through. We’re probably looking at some of the best yields around.”
While yields look strong after a great growing season, prices also are improving due to more demand from China and damaging weather in other states, including Iowa where a derecho blew through, with several million acres of corn and soybean fields flattened by winds topping 100 mph.
Still, after recent years of low commodity prices, tariffs, trade wars and now a pandemic, many in rural areas are in financial and emotional despair.
Deacon Tim Dolan, of the New Um Diocese and a former Extension educator, has for years counseled farm families in distress. He said that in the first months of the pandemic his services were sought out.
“I was probably talking to three to five families a day. Now it’s down to a few a week,” Dolan said.
“COVID has taken it to a different height. The price issues and work issues. This year the hog farmers and dairy farmers have watched the severe drop in price and then a rebound, and then it just bounces around. At least the commodity prices are bearable.”
The good growing season and hot, dry fall have farmers readying their combines early.
“We’re probably five days to a week early,” Wolle said. Some farmers are already combining early varieties of soybeans and even some early corn. Wolle said crops are generally mature enough that if a hard freeze comes soon, it shouldn’t reduce yields.
While it’s too early to get a solid handle on yields, Wolle said he’s talked to some who are having a good start.
“Some people are seeing 60 bushels on beans. That would be tremendous out of early beans. Even 55 is nice.”
The state’s corn crop is 23 days ahead of last year and 10 days ahead of the five-year average, according to the USDA. The soybean crop is 16 days ahead of last year and eight days ahead of the average.
Hoverstad said early harvested beans are showing good yield. “I think you’ll see plenty of 60 and 70 bushel (soybean) yields here.”
He said the corn crop also looks good and the crop is drying down well.
“I’ve sampled some, and the early maturing varieties are in the mid 20% (moisture content),” Hoverstad said.
Farmers like corn to be just below 25% moisture. If it’s wetter, they have to spend more drying it in the bin. If it gets too dry — below 20% — they can lose corn kernels that fall off during combining.
He said that thanks to a warm spring, summer and fall, the area already has surpassed the normal number of growing degree days.
Hoverstad said after two wet years, a dry fall is appreciated. “I think farmers are looking forward to a fall where they don’t have to fight mud. I think we have a good chance for that.”
Farmers are seeing some of the best prices of the year.
For the past two weeks China has shown strong purchasing of soybeans, much of which they use for feeding hogs.
“I think exports to China have been a significant driver in bean prices going up. They’ve increased more than a dollar a bushel recently,” Wolle said.
The purchases are part of phase one commitment from China under a trade deal with the United States.
China is set to buy a record amount of American soybeans this year as lower prices help the Asian nation boost purchases.
The total from the U.S. will probably reach about 40 million tons in 2020. That would be roughly 10% more than the record set in 2016, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“One of the negatives is the tariffs are still in place, so there isn’t any ethanol or dry distiller grain going to China,” Wolle said. “So we’d like to see those tariffs lifted, so it’s economical for China to purchase.”
Wolle, who serves on the board of the National Corn Growers Association, said there has been some good news on the ethanol front, too, leading to better corn prices.
He said the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reject some waivers to small gas refineries means more ethanol will be blended. The waivers, which were earlier given to many small refineries, allow the refineries to forgo blending ethanol into gasoline. The waivers were criticized by farm groups.
But Wolle said there is still being less fuel being used overall.
“Right now the liquid fuel market is down close to 10% from normal because of less driving. Until we get past COVID and everyone drives as much as they did, there won’t be as much ethanol consumed. But maybe with more people working from home, they won’t be driving as much (in the future).”
He said a bright spot is that consumers have become fans of gasoline blended with 15% ethanol, rather than the 10% blend.
Mental health concerns
Dolan, a soft-spoken man with a career in ag education and a deep spiritual faith, is a comforting counselor for farm families.
“I guess I can get people to talk and that’s why I get called a lot to talk with people. I’m just kind of a person who has that empathy so they can talk and work things through.”
He was long a University of Minnesota ag educator and regional coordinator, based in Gaylord. He’s also done mediations between farm families and their lenders when farmers fall behind on payments. He is now director of social concerns at the New Ulm Diocese, serving five rural parishes.
“The financial issues are always there for farm families, but it’s more this year,” Dolan said.
“Whenever there’s a financial stress, someone in the family shuts down. The communication is vital then. When you don’t talk, that’s when you get in trouble. During the COVID pandemic, I’ve talked to hundreds of families.”
He also has access to funds for financial stipends for struggling families.
“Once we’ve talked they can do their review as a couple and we can walk them through a pattern of figuring things out emotionally, planning financially, organizing their life, emotionally, financially and spiritually,” Dolan said.
He encourages farm families who are struggling to contact one of the helplines offered by the state or to contact Catholic Charities or Lutheran Social Service.