In the small Catholic parish of my childhood, the word “saint-maker” was sometimes used to describe certain individuals who pushed you to become a better Christian just by tolerating their, ahem, “challenging” personalities.
I suspect the term hits home for many farmers this year.
“2019 has taught me patience,” said Zack Rendel, a young farmer from northeastern Oklahoma. “It was so hard just sitting and watching it rain all the time and wanting to go, go, go! But if we can’t, we can’t. It built a lot of character.”
Rendel is part of the Agronomy Advisers, a group of trusted farmers and ranchers who spent the season filling us in on their farming and livestock operations and weighing in on current events in agriculture. In this final Field Roundup of the year, they laid out their winter agendas and reflected on the biggest challenges and lessons of this saint-maker of a year.
An Endless Harvest
Rendel finally finished harvesting the first week of December — far later than normal. Not all of his compatriots have been so fortunate, particularly those in the northern Corn Belt.
Minnesota farmer Jeff Littrell and his son still have soybeans to harvest. In northwestern Missouri, Bob Birdsell had to contact his insurance agent this week to deliver the bad news: his corn and soybeans weren’t going to be harvested by the coverage end date of Dec. 10.
Likewise, in southern Ontario, Dan Petker finally inched across the harvest finish line before Dec. 1, but has many stalled neighbors. “There are still fields of corn and even some soybeans left to be harvested,” he said. “The rains and occasional snow have really slowed the final harvest push to a crawl.”
In northwest Iowa, Jay Magnussen fears for neighboring fields of high-moisture corn still standing. Some farmers are waiting for corn to dry down below 20%, when they can haul it to ethanol plants.
“It’s currently -1 degrees [Fahrenheit] here, so I don’t see much drydown anytime soon,” Magnussen said on Wednesday. “Stalks weren’t in good quality a month ago, and I’m sure they haven’t gotten any stronger. Their harvest losses can be huge.”
Even those who finished harvest haven’t necessarily escaped 2019’s fall season unscathed. For the second year in a row, Rendel’s wheat planting was scuttled, and this year, a planting window for canola never opened up either.
“For the first time ever for Rendel Farms, there are zero crops in the ground this winter,” he said.
Winter Plans: Long Lists
Winter to-do lists are long for some Agronomy Advisers. Soil sampling before the ground freezes, cattle care, equipment maintenance, fencing, marketing, seed buying and hauling grain will keep many busy.
For some, other sources of income beckon. In central Kansas, Kyle Krier and his family run a diversified operation, with row crops, hay production, crop insurance and an oil company providing plenty of work for the “off-season.” In southern Illinois, Josh Miller is tackling a detailed hemp production plan for the spring.
For Magnussen, who works at his local co-op, winter is the worry season. “My winter will be spent drinking my sorrows of 2019 away,” he joked. “But we’ll also be busy preparing for all possible scenarios that could strike for the spring of 2020. We will be preparing for a tough, wet, condensed spring as in 2019.”
Some farmers are looking ahead to winter conferences, and John Werries of west-central Illinois is finally going to tackle that stack of farm magazines that has been growing all year long.
But many are making time for leisure, too. “I’m ready to be done farming for a little while,” Petker said. “It’s time to disconnect, see friends and family and have some actual personal time.”
A Master Class In Stress Management
With its historic flooding, late planting, flash droughts and wet harvest, few Agronomy Advisers walked away from this year with any new farming wisdom.
“I hesitate to try to glean too much knowledge from this year,” said Kyle Samp, of north-central Missouri. “Probably the biggest lesson — and what I”ll try to incorporate next year — is scheduling time away from the farm. Stress is cumulative and in years like this, it can get to unhealthy levels if it’s not managed.”
That was Rendel’s biggest takeaway, too. This year was his first relying entirely on his own farm for income, and he forged a bond with another young farmer who spent 2019 managing a farm on his own for the first year.
“We’ve been there for each other all year long,” Rendel said. “Lots of phone calls and texts back and forth: ‘Are you okay? Are you doing all right?’ Lots of mental health checks.”
Nebraska farmer Kenny Reinke was among those affected by the historic flooding that occurred after the bomb cyclone in March. The year will be a permanent benchmark in his mind, he said. “This year is one that will go in the history books for me,” he said. “Many of us will have in the back of our minds to watch out for heavy rain events on frozen ground.”
For Werries, many years of farming have given him an advanced degree in weathering the highs and lows, which came in handy this year and past years.
“This was my 55th crop,” he noted. “Farming has its ups and downs. I have had some very good years and some very bad years. The average has been good. You have to play the averages.”
For some farmers, recent volatile weather has them rethinking their own definition of average.
“It was a challenging year, and I hope I never see another one like this,” Rendel said. “But with as wet as we’ve been, you start to wonder, is this the new norm?”
- Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.email@example.com
- Follow her online @Emily_Unglesbee.