Please click thru to the article for some unbelievable graphics about how rain and floods are making it literally impossible to plant this year’s Midwest corn crop. Since corn is one of our top food crops, this should alarm everyone.
I’m leaving the article in its messy state as the maps by themselves, even with unreadable labels, show disaster. Again, please click thru.
Corn Belt farmers are used to being at the mercy of the weather.
But they are not used to the weather being quite this merciless.
Through all of April and all of May, wave after wave of rain hit the nation right in the breadbasket, with April capping the wettest 12 months on record for the continental United States. The past 60 days, in particular, have coincided with planting season in much of the country.
Areas with more precipitation than normal in the last 60 days
3 times more
Major corn and soy
States across the Corn Belt led the way, nearing or breaking previous precipitation records. Midwest cities from St. Louis to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., have reported unprecedented rainfall. Data for May will be released later this week and can be expected to set more records.
Recent measurements show most of Illinois’s famous topsoils are more waterlogged than they have ever been, University of Illinois economist Scott Irwin said.
Farmers cannot plant in that muck. It fouls their equipment and strangles their seeds. It is not enough for the rain to stop. The soil has to dry for as much as a week before they can plant again. According to the latest forecasts from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, that does not look likely.
Precipitation data shown only on land that grows corn and soy
3 times more
Areas that do
corn or soy
Note: data is as of May 30
It should have been prime planting season. In most years, almost every corn seed would be in the ground by now.
This is not like most years. As the calendar ticks toward the point of no return, new data released Monday shows farmers have planted 67 percent of the acres they had planned to put in corn. In key states such as Illinois (45 percent) and Indiana (31 percent), it is even lower.
Corn planting progress
Grids are sized according to millions of acres predicted to be planted in 2019.
Planting progress for this year
Progress for previous years
When Sherman Newlin surveys the 2,250 acres he farms near Hutsonville, Ill., he can still see standing water. It feels like a recurring nightmare. Farmers provide drainage and struggle to prepare the soil for planting, he said, “and then it rains, and you’re back to square one.”
“If we get another big rain, it’s over,” Newlin said.
Planting season is more loosely defined than you would think. Farmers are resilient, and commodity markets are responsive. Planting in June is so absurd that Midwest universities typically do not even test dates that late when determining optimal growing seasons, Irwin said. But if fears of a bad crop spread and corn prices rise enough — they are already up about 20 percent since their mid-May low — some farmers will plant late crops, even if they are likely to harvest far less per acre.
Even under the most generous definitions, much of the Corn Belt has only one hail-Mary planting window left. The coming week’s weather will make or break this year’s crop.
As a farmer who is also a full-time commodity broker, Newlin has a unique perspective on these calculations. He has watched his clients scramble all spring amid the relentless push and pull of weather and markets. They shift contracts, skip fertilizer and swap out seeds to make it work. But according to Newlin, the weather always wins.
“It doesn’t matter how much the market rallies if you can’t get into the field,” he said.
Days suitable for planting by week
Week of May 5
Planting progress understates the problem
The unplanted acres of corn are unprecedented, but those who focus exclusively on planting may underestimate the problem, University of Wyoming agronomist Andrew Kniss said.
After weather this wet, much of what has been planted will likely need to be replanted. Seeds are struggling. If they come up at all, growth could be stunted.
With 600 of about 1,200 corn acres planted, you would think Newlin was one of the luckier ones. But he said he will need to replant at least 240 of those.
“There are plants out there, but it’s so uneven.” he said. “You’re just as well off to just tear the whole field up and start over.”
In recent years, corn plants have typically emerged on about 84 percent of planned corn acres by this point. This year, it is at 46 percent. Illinois (32 percent) and Indiana (18 percent) are even farther behind.
And, Newlin said, the acres remaining to plant were always going to be the hardest. The farmers have already planted all their driest fields — the ones that are left are the ones that become most challenging in wet conditions.
Some acres just won’t get planted
For many farmers, the clock has run out on corn for 2019. Even if they work around the clock under optimal conditions, there just are not enough hours to finish planting.
“I’m completely confident that we are going to lose substantial acres of corn,” Irwin said. He estimates that 10 million acres would either go unplanted for insurance purposes or be switched to soybeans. For perspective, that lost acreage would have been the third largest corn state this year, behind the predicted totals for Iowa and Illinois.
Farmers could switch to soybeans, but then they would find themselves even more exposed to President Trump’s trade war with China, the world’s largest soybean market. And beans face many of the same planting issues as corn, Newlin said. But the alternative is to bow out and collect crop insurance.
Most policies have a provision declaring that, if they were not able to plant that year, farmers can still cash out for 55 percent of their insured revenue for the year.
The provision rarely gets used. Farmers would prefer to grow something. But if the weather does not let up, Newlin said it is on the table for a lot of folks in his area.
He said: “They’re just going to say ‘I’m done. I’ll just take my insurance and live to fight another day.’ ”
Some farmers do not have that option. Irwin estimates that about 85 percent of the corn acres in Illinois were covered by such insurance, often as part of enormous operations that can afford coverage. The remaining 15 percent includes many small, family farms that are left with little protection against this unprecedented weather.
As more farmers give up on 2019, alarmed traders will probably bid up prices on corn and soybeans, making costs soar for ethanol producers, hog farmers and others who are already caught in the president’s escalating two-front trade war.
“The whole year has just turned into a crisis,” Newlin said.
Sources: Rainfall anomaly data is from NOAA’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service. Corn planting progress uses data from USDA and is based on visualizations by Andrew Kniss. Planting days maps are based on data from USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service weekly crop progress reports.