Early spring, stable prices make for optimistic planting season
By Anna Jauhola
The rain area farmers had been hoping for fell over the weekend, perhaps giving them even more optimism for the impending growing season.
Farmers are always anxious to get into the field, but with the particularly dry winter and spring many are champing at the bit.
“Obviously, the spring looks a lot earlier than we’re used to,” said Kelly Erickson, who farms with his son southwest of Hallock. “We’ve dealt with floods and sometimes two floods a year. I don’t think we’re going to have to deal with that this year. I think the important thing this year is to be a little bit patient, wait for the ground temperature to warm up and watch the weather.”
Farmers were definitely watching the weather Sunday. It was cool and calm all morning and into the early afternoon. Then the clouds rolled in and looked promising.
Then the rain came. A steady, easy rainfall that lasted an hour or two.
Even before the rain, Erickson – a lifelong farmer raising sugar beets, wheat and soybeans – cautioned starting too early.
“It’s still March. You could have a couple of snow storms. Even though it’s spring, you never know – Mother Nature could fool us,” he said.
Despite that, he is hopeful for the sugar beet season. The Ericksons have raised sugar beets for decades. He said with the dry fields, many of which were prepped last fall, most will be able to begin tilling and planting by mid-April.
“I think sugar beet farmers in particular are fairly optimistic,” Erickson said. “Prices for sugar are pretty stable.”
Erickson has long been a leader in the sugar beet community. He is currently on the American Sugar Beet Association board, has been president of the Red River Valley Sugar Beet Association, among numerous other local, regional and national positions. He commented that the United States currently has agreements with Mexico on suspending sugar imports, which is part of helping the sugar prices remain stable.
“When you have a commodity and you have stable prices, that’s always good. So you can kind of do some planning. From that aspect, I think everybody’s optimistic about how things are going to turn out,” he said. “When you have commodities – wheat, corn, soybeans, whatever – it’s up and down, hard to plan, you don’t know what it’s going to be.”
Between this uncertainty and the farmers’ eternal optimism, Erickson reiterated patience is key. He said the nice spring so far is great, but taking a chance and planting too early could be a mistake. For sugar beets, Erickson is looking forward to a good year.
“If you see a crop by April 15 and you’re able to begin harvest when we start pre-harvest in August, and you get timely rains, you can look for a heck of a crop,” he said.
Soybean farmers are eyeing a better year as commodity prices have jumped, leaving many excited about the season. Theresia Gillie raises soybeans and wheat east of Hallock and has also served on local, regional and state agricultural associations, including as president of Minnesota Soybean Growers Association. She is also Kittson County commissioner for District 2.
“The talk is there will be more soybeans planted than previously,” Gillie said of the coming season. “The price is up, protection with crop insurance is up. We’ve waited a long time for this.”
Looking back at 2013, Gillie recalled selling beans for $16. Last fall, she sold for $8.22.
“That’s severely different and people don’t realize how much of a swing it can take,” she said. “At $8 they’re not profitable, of course, and we’d love to have $16 all the time. But I think there’ll be a little bit of a trend just because of the protection at a higher level.”
She said the uptick in prices for crops has been happening since August, leaving farmers optimistic. She attributes the increase to better trade agreements and is hopeful for a turnaround with foreign markets where there is higher demand for soybeans across the world.
The dry fall also helped as several farmers, including Gillie, were able to be in the fields, prepping, well into November last year. However, with a swing in prices comes the shift in input costs.
“I’m really glad I ordered my fertilizer early, because fertilizer prices have really taken a hike. I also ordered seed early, so I kind of have some things locked in,” she said.
Last week, before the rain fell, Gillie was disappointed by the lack of moisture. She noted mid-March looked more like mid-April. Although there is the adage, “If you plant in the dust, your bins will bust,” Gillie said timely rains will be important for seeds to form solid, deep root systems. If plants have that solid root base by late June and early July, Gillie said they will have access to moisture in dry periods.
Typically, the ground is more forgiving in the spring as the frost layer thaws and releases moisture into the topsoil. Gillie’s wish of last week came true on Sunday: “Hopefully we get that earlier rain or at least not miss one.”
Gillie echoed Erickson’s thoughts on being patient. Planting too early without the right conditions can lead seeds to not germinate, just disintegrate in the soil, making a huge difference in the yield.
The earliest Gillie remembers being in the field is April 12, 2012. It was a very profitable year for soybeans and other crops, she said, citing periodic rains after planting in dry fields.
“The hope is to get in early like that, and any time you’re not fighting the mud and working the fields, it costs a heck of a lot less,” she said. “If you can put seed in that perfect seed bed, you’ll be off to a good start.”
Wheat farmers are looking toward a better year, too. Although the field and weather conditions look favorable, prices have been bouncing around. Paul Johnson farms with his dad, Gary, and brother, Brent, just south of Hallock, and is a past president of the Minnesota Wheat Growers Association. Although he is only a member now, he never hesitates to send in member dues to such organizations “because it is a good voice for agriculture.”
This spring, Johnson said the price per bushel of wheat is between $5.50 and $6.
“The tough thing with wheat is there are protein discounts and premiums. More discounts on average,” he said. “Wheat is probably the one crop we can see a yield bump and that will give you some reward.”
The Johnsons have raised wheat for three generations and find in recent years an average yield of 60 to 65 bushels per acre. They’ve seen 90 bushel years, but have also seen less than 60 bushel yields. And what helps make for a good crop? Rain.
“You want to get the right rains to get (the wheat) up and get it filled,” Johnson said. “It does take less moisture. You don’t need the fall moisture like corn, soybeans and beets do. Yield potential (for wheat) is set by the middle of July. So we’ll take the moisture, but I have a tough time saying it’s going to be a drought all summer because a drought can end in 15 minutes.”
All farmers around the region are busy prepping for the planting season, opening shop doors, tuning up equipment and looking to the skies for a sign to safely begin. Several prepared in the fall by laying fertilizer, including the Johnsons.
“That reduces the spring workload a little because our fertilizer plants aren’t quite equipped to spread every acre in the spring,” Johnson said. “It gets to be a hectic spring.”
He said fall fertilizer application typically involves placing phosphates. They will also apply some nitrogen fertilizer in the fall, but that can get lost in a wet, late spring, he said. So most of their nitrogen fertilizer is applied in the spring.
Johnson said Kittson County will also be a great location for wheat because it fits the soil type and the climate. Also, soybeans and wheat pair well together for rotation, which the Johnsons practice. The family operation is looking for a good year in the crop, but as with most, they aren’t going to count their bushels until they’re in the bin.
The same thought process goes for the Lindegards of Hallock. Joel, son Kary and nephew Erik all work together, raising corn, soybeans and wheat. Kary Lindegard said the group pretty well worked their fields last fall for a good start this spring. They usually fertilize in the spring, last fall gave them the opportunity to get a lot of ditching and leveling done. However, they are not quite gearing up for the field this spring and are leaning more toward a conservative start.
“We’ve heard of some pushing into the field already,” Lindegard said last week. “But we’re kind of dragging our feet. We’re hoping for mid-April sometime if the weather stays like this.”
He added that both corn and soybean prices have rallied, which gives farmers an optimistic outlook for the season, which is something the Lindegards need after last year. He said last spring started strong for them with corn, but heavy rains devastated crops, preventing the corn from reaching proper maturity.
Usually, Lindegard said they hope for an average yield of 140 to 150 bushels per acre. This hope is strong this year, especially as corn prices have also rallied.
All around, farmers continue to be cautious about entering the field too early.
“I think in the springtime, this year, you just don’t want to screw things up,” Erickson said. “It’s early. It’s still March. I think we have an opportunity because it looks like we’re going to have a nice spring. Being patient would be something we need to think about, although it’s hard to do.”