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Water-logged fields force farmer to make tough choice: 'Plant or don't plant at all'

GTNS photo by Carter Melrose

Fields across Henry and Washington counties have been water-logged, which have created a dilemma for area farmers - should they plant or not?
GTNS photo by Carter Melrose Fields across Henry and Washington counties have been water-logged, which have created a dilemma for area farmers - should they plant or not?

Fields full of standing water have caused widespread worry in farming communities across southeast Iowa this spring, as it’s been too wet for many farmers to plant. According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s June 3 Iowa Crop Report, this season has seen the least soybeans planted at this point since 1983.

“I know this year’s planting progress is the farthest we’ve been behind in my entire lifetime,” Rebecca Vittetoe, a field agronomist with Iowa State Extension and Outreach said.

If the rain continues and the ground is too soppy to plant their soybeans before the June 15 federal crop insurance soybean deadline, the farmers of Henry and Washington counties will be forced into one of two major options: Plant late or don’t plant at all.

“People are still holding out hope they can get something planted before then,” Alan Miller a local Henry County farmer said. “Planting after the 15th with federal crop insurance, you start losing a percent a day on your crops. And if you get an early frost on beans and they aren’t ripe, then that hurts the crop a lot.”

If the farmers decide that the fields are in no position to be used for any crop this June, they can take a clause on their Federal Crop Insurance called ‘Prevented Plant,’ which will give them essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card and allow them to receive supplemental payments for their loss of a crop season. The only downside is, most of the time these payments are fixed and can’t compete with market prices, which means the farmer normally doesn’t get fully reimbursed for the loss most years.

Vittetoe estimates, Washington County has approximately 85 to 90 percent of their corn planted and as low as 23 percent of its soybeans.

In Henry country, local farmers like Miller are also barred from planting soybeans until the fields start to dry up. Miller is especially worried about the real possibility that after 42 years of farming, this year could be the first time he hasn’t had soybeans to bring to market at all - but is staying optimistic.

“There have been years where we have planted in the middle of June and still got a good bean crop,” Miller said.

This planting season there are also financial risks in not planting soybeans. According to Ryan Drollette a farm management specialist for Washington County, places like Ohio, Illinois and Indiana are all in rougher shape than even Iowa when it comes to how many of their acres they currently have planted. If this shortage of planting opportunities continues in the Midwest, it will push the market prices up considerably - giving farmers a huge incentive to plant soybeans after the deadline.

“It might be the option that I take prevented plant,” Drollette said. “The scenario changes on me every day. I’ve got my prices going up but also I’m sitting here thinking I’m waterlogged and its gonna take a while to dry out.”

Drollette doesn’t believe that there is a better or worse course of action when it comes to taking this risk. To him, the planting decision should be taken case by case based on your farm and its immediate needs. However, with the high reward option, the adjacent high-risk opportunity continues to loom.

“The later you plant, the more at risk you are of yielding less,” Miller said. “The worst-case scenario is that it keeps raining and we don’t get the crop planted. Or we do get the crop planted and we have an early frost.”

The saving grace for many of the farmers in Iowa came during the last couple weeks of April. The fields were dry and warm, and many were able to plant a substantial amount of corn. In fact, most of the most fruitful planting done this season across the Midwest was done in that pivotal week.

“We haven’t done any planting since April 25,” Miller said. “I did finish with my corn at that time, but some will have to be replanted. All this rain is taking its toll.”

Vittetoe cites that this rain is unlike many flood years like 2008, describing the difference as fewer downpours and more consistent rain and wetness – though this year has been a much worse plague for the farmers. Many after planting their corn and soybeans were met with delayed budding of the crops that forced them to question what their plan was for the upcoming season.

“This spring has been a very challenging planting season just because of the wet conditions,” Vittetoe said. “I’ve gotten a lot of calls from farmers saying, ‘Why aren’t my crops out of the ground? Are they going to be OK?’”

A final option that farmers can take if they have planted some or most of their acreage but don’t plan on finishing the job, involves taking decreased protected plant insurance payments as long as their farm follows the rule of 20s.

“Law of 20s means you have to have either 20 acres or 20 percent of your insurable unit that hasn’t been planted,” Drollette said.