Soggy weather delaying fall harvest is 'just another nail in the coffin' for Wisconsin farmers

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Already beset with problems caused by trade wars and low commodity prices, many U.S. farmers are facing yet another challenge: wet, muddy fields keeping them from reaping their fall harvest.

In Wisconsin, there were only two days suitable for field work in the week ending Oct. 7, according to a crops report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Madison.

A cornfield is water-soaked Wednesday near the Town of Stockbridge in Calumnet County. Waterlogged fields across the state have slowed the fall harvest.

“Those that tried to harvest corn, corn silage or soybeans were very creative or were getting stuck,” a crops observer from Adams and Juneau counties said in the report.

“You need a boat to get into some fields,” quipped Kevin Jarek, a University of Wisconsin Extension agent in Outagamie County.

Still, in many places, the crops look healthy despite too much rain.

Forty-two percent of the corn in the state was rated "good,” while 29 percent was "excellent," the crops report, released Tuesday, said.

"Corn yields are very good as harvest progresses slowly on the high and dry land," a crops observer from Green County said.  

Likewise, 44 percent of the soybeans were rated good and 27 percent excellent.

But even a great field of corn or soybeans, the state's most ubiquitous crops, will fall apart if it remains in wet conditions too long.

Bob Roden works combining a field of winter wheat on the farm. Roden Echo Valley LLC, the farm owned by Bob Roden and his family in the West Bend area.  They milk 600-650 cows on any given day and have 2000 acres in corn, soybeans, winter wheat, and alfalfa that they cultivate.

“Some corn and soybeans have been standing in water for over a month. Soybeans are turning black in the field and corn is falling over. Very depressing,” the Adams and Juneau counties observer said.

Too much rain at harvest time has slowed field work not only in Wisconsin, but in Iowa, Indiana, South Dakota, and North Carolina.

“We should be harvesting soybeans, but we can’t,” said Bob Roden, who farms 1,800 acres near West Bend.

Low prices for milk, soybeans, and now wet weather at harvest, “is just another nail in the coffin" for some farms, Roden said.

To some degree, farmers are gamblers. They borrow money in the spring to plant crops, betting that the fall harvest will cover their loans and generate a profit.

Their livelihood depends on the weather, global commodity prices and other things out of their control.

Lower prices in September had a negative effect on how farmers felt about their livelihood, according to a Purdue University-CME Group “ag barometer” survey of 400 farmers across the nation.

More than half of the farmers surveyed said their farm’s financial condition was worse than a year earlier. A third said they expect their finances will continue to decline over the next 12 months.

“The barometer readings have been unusually volatile,” said James Mintert, director of Purdue University’s Center for Commercial Agriculture.

Wisconsin corn yields are coming in over the top this year, breaking records for total production and  bushels per acre.

Concerns about the ongoing impact of trade conflicts, especially China's tariffs on U.S. agricultural products, continue to be felt throughout the farm economy, Mintert said.

To participate in the survey, farmers needed to have a gross annual income of more than $500,000, achievable by many operations.

 “The negative outlook was particularly noticeable when producers were asked whether now was a good time to make large investments in farm machinery and buildings for their farming operation; … 78 percent said it was a bad time,” Mintert said.

The trade war with China weighs heavily on some farmers because, since early July, China has slapped a 25 percent tariff on U.S. soybeans among hundreds of other American products.

U.S. soybean prices have slid about 30 percent from a year ago.

“It’s a losing price for many farmers,” said Kevin McNew, chief economist at Farmer’s Business Network based in California.

Recent trade agreements struck with Mexico and Canada brought some hope for U.S. farmers, offering some long-term sales stability, but a deal with China remains elusive.

At billions of dollars a year, soybeans are the largest U.S. export to China, which in recent months has been turning to South America for its beans.

“It’s really a difficult time for our farmers to go through a trade war,” McNew said.

It’s also a tough time for farmers to be stuck with soggy fields that have delayed the harvest and reduced the quality of crops.

Agriculture officials have warned feed mill operators and livestock producers to be alert for mold and floodwater contamination in corn, soybeans and forage crops. 

This is the second straight year that heavy rain has devastated Louisiana’s big soybean crop, with “countless acres” of fields going unharvested, according to agriculture officials in that state.

It’s not nearly that bad in Wisconsin, but one crops observer, from Columbia County, put it this way: "Farmers just sitting and waiting is causing more stress to an already tough situation."