Jeff Brown has taken to keeping changes of clothes in his tractor this spring. Home may only be 15 miles or so away as the crow flies, but most nights this spring he wasn’t sure when he’d see it next.
The Blue Mound, Illinois, farmer has been racing the rain. On Sunday, the long-range forecast started calling weather to move in Tuesday night or maybe Wednesday morning. Bri-Mac Farms still had 2,000 acres to go before he could sleep.
Brown is by reputation meticulous about planting — about everything, really. But he loves the preciseness of this ritual and the fresh start it brings each year. Spring is a clean slate and a promise. At least, it always has been.
A perennial winner in the National Corn Grower Yield Contest, Brown is among the first to embrace modern innovations — whether it is technology or genetics. He subscribes to the yield-winning philosophies that every kernel of corn needs to emerge together. He has many of the planting tools to deliver just the right amount of pressure to tuck every baby seed in just right. Before he started farming full time in 2018, he saw and learned a lot as a company representative for Monsanto about how to make the most of every field.
Nothing, however, prepared him for #plant19. “This year we have definitely learned who is in charge,” he said reverently.
Across the landscape on Sunday, puffs of dust indicated other farmers in the same scurry to plant whatever they can as fast as they can. He knows them all and knows many are experiencing similar frustrations now that May has slipped away and with it, some of the yield potential for both corn and soybeans.
Those yields and the pressure to produce are even more critical now that prices might finally be responding to the reduced planting prospects. Having a crop this year could potentially be more lucrative than was ever dreamed when farmers picked out hybrids and varieties last fall — tariffs notwithstanding.
Still, making profits while others struggle isn’t how Brown, or most other farmers, prefers to operate.
“Planting in June,” he spits out the words as if the stripe of dirt that decorates his cheek has somehow slipped and he’s tasted it for the first time.
“Farming at night might be a blessing this year. At least when we look behind us, we can’t see all the agronomic sins we’ve committed,” Brown said. “There have been plenty of them this year.”
He clicks off a list of things he thinks this crop will need to push past the subpar conditions. Ironically, more rainfall will be needed, especially if the corn gets lazy and roots higher in the soil profile, instead of pushing deeper for moisture. Heat units are needed — but not too many at pollination time.
What Does July Hold?
While an early harvest potential grabs headlines, he’s more worried about what conditions will be like in July.
It’s not the first time that rain and even ponded conditions have held planting hostage, and it won’t be the last. This year differs in that about the time a field became fit, it would rain again and again. “We just never have caught much of a break. Usually we get bigger breaks,” he said.
Brown knows he’s not even in the worst of this current farming fiasco and feels bad even complaining about it. He can name friends and fellow farmers stretched out along rivers that likely will not plant at all this year and others that have planted fields now flooded. Shoot … you don’t even have to be along a river to be weathered out this year.
Central Illinois caught a small break in mid-May and a fair amount of corn was planted at that time. But black cutworms have already shown up to feast on those first fields to emerge — cutting down the young seedlings where they stand.
He proactively sprayed for black cutworms last week. “They were small and going to be around long enough to do some real damage to some of the best fields we had so far,” he said.
The tractor groans slightly as it pulls across land that is dry on top, but still too damp for ideal underneath. This pull is not something an experienced driver hears as much as feels.
A tractor and field cultivator toiled all night in this spot the previous evening, opening up the soil to promote drying. The winds, which might ordinarily be a drawback for other practices such as spraying, came along strong to give the field a “good enough for this year” go-ahead.
AgFax Weed Solutions
23 Inches of Rain
As a waterway comes on the horizon, Brown checks his first impulse to drive across it. The giant tractor stops just short of a deep, washed-out crevice hidden in a tumble of grass and weeds. These fields so carefully mapped have changed in a way no automation yet available can detect. “That’s what 23 inches of rain in a month will do,” he said.
He backs the tractor up and works around the bottleneck. The phone rings as he gets to the far end of the field. It’s his wife, Amy. She’s arrived with dinner and is positioned as far away from the tractor as possible in this field.
Brown chooses the most direct guidance line and heads for the dinner bell — only to have a different alarm begin to beep about halfway through the field. Row No. 23 isn’t getting full population. Deep breath … these are not welcome interruptions when the operator’s brain is running on pure adrenaline mixed with coffee or Red Bull or both. He discovers the hopper lid wasn’t properly sealed. A “please let that be it” look momentarily flashes across his face as he climbs back up to take the driver position.
Anyone that knows Brown can tell you he’s looking thin these days, even for this extremely lanky guy. Inviting smells are coming from the slow cooker in Amy’s car and she starts to dish up sandwiches. He tells her only one, but she makes him take two. He waves off the other offerings, downs a bottle of water, swallows one sandwich and gnaws on the second, as he stalks back toward the planter.
Then, he stops, turns around and comes back to give Amy a quick kiss and a thank you.
Planting seasons like these don’t happen alone. There’s a big crew of people in the background — including the equipment dealer, various input reps, and it’s incredible how important the fuel guy becomes, Brown noted. Most of all, there is a list of family and farm partners pulling together to outpace a rain that at the moment they don’t want and in a few days they will likely need.
As evening falls, Brown’s son Marshall arrives to run the planter so Dad can sleep in the truck for a few hours. Meanwhile, his other son, Walker, is in another field replanting and patching in areas that were previously too wet.
“Everyone is learning on their own and the heat is on,” Brown said. The familial resemblance between these men is strong, but the streaks of dirt outlining their features on this evening make it more remarkable. The agrarian war paint might be comical under other circumstances, but this year it almost seems symbolic.
When the June 5 prevented planting date turned over, Brown and the Bri-Mac farm crews had met the deadline. Relief and accomplishment mixed with a feeling of being blessed. “We know many farmers this year are not so fortunate,” he said.
The sleepless nights because they weren’t farming, or because they were farming, may be temporarily behind them. Still, there’s no real rest for the weary. It’s already time to sidedress nitrogen in corn and tackle weeds in fields where residuals are quickly losing their hold.
But for now, Brown and his boys will head home to take a shower, and ironically, those seeds so hastily planted will soon need one too.
Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.firstname.lastname@example.org
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