AP NEWS

Farmers ‘under the gun’

May 4, 2019

You might be dealing with the aggravation of a flooded basement, but farmers’ livelihoods are hanging in the balance.

Statewide, they are way behind in planting crops. The delayed planting could result in lower yields, and the lingering water could suffocate already planted seeds.

As of the end of last week, just 9 percent of the corn crop had been planted, down from 28 percent last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The five-year average at this point in the year is 43 percent.

Locally, Bonfield farmer Allen Pfeiffer estimates 20 percent of his corn fields have been planted, down from the usual 60 percent by May 1. His soybean progress is nonexistent, while about 20 percent could be sowed by now.

And those percentages could reset if planted fields remain under water.

“If the water doesn’t recede in a couple days, the oxygen gets cut off from the seeds, and anything planted will rot or die,” Pfeiffer said Wednesday. “If the weather continues, we’ll likely have to replant everything.”

The USDA reports that about 55 percent of the state’s topsoil was waterlogged last week. Russ Higgins, a commercial agriculture educator with University of Illinois Extension, said farmers in Kankakee County and elsewhere are “somewhat under the gun.”

“I went out yesterday (in Morris) and flew a drone to get a better perspective of the standing water in fields. I’ll be quite honest, it was worse than I thought,” Higgins said. “There were so many areas with water, you’d think you were in Minnesota, the land of lakes.”

As Pfeiffer and his son, fellow farmer Jared Sikes, trudged through almost-knee-high water where the entrance to a normally dry, 80-acre field should be, the pair observed just that.

Twice they turned the truck around to avoid overflowing creeks rushing across the rural gravel roads, more resembling a river than a tributary.

“When you look on the horizon, you shouldn’t see water out here in Bonfield,” Sikes said. “We have 100-acre lakes.”

With so much rain this week, Higgins said it might be another week before many farmers can start planting.

“If everything turns around, we still have a good chance of a good yield. Those chances are diminishing as planting is delayed and we have saturated soils,” Higgins said. “As we push our planting further back, the great yields we’ve had the last couple years will decrease a little bit.”

In such situations, Higgins said, farmers turn to the area’s other major crop, soybeans. But that is not an attractive option now because Chinese soybean tariffs are causing soybean prices to plunge.

Ahead of switching fields to soybeans, Pfeiffer said the next option is to bring in a shorter, faster-maturing corn species. While that means taking a yield reduction, it alleviates the risk of an early frost hitting taller species and losing everything.

“You just can’t have corn out there until December waiting for it to dry,” he said. “There are so many variables to weigh, but for now, it’s a waiting game.”

With April 25 as their last day in the field, both Pfeiffer and Sikes said they’ve had to find things to do during their normally busy weeks. Sikes had time to clean his son’s fish tank. Others he knows have tackled home remodeling projects.

The sump pump kicking on doesn’t go unnoticed as they finish lunch at Pfeiffer’s house.

“We have so much work to do no matter what,” Sikes said. “It’s hard just sitting at home.”