Historic Rains Ravaged Illinois Farms. Now The race Is On to Harvest Before It’s Too Late.

October 14, 2019by Patrick M. O’connell
Greg St. Aubin holds corn, the kernel tips still too moist for harvest, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in Manteno, Ill. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Mark Tuttle cuts straight to the point when describing the field and weather conditions he has faced this year on his farm in southern DeKalb County.

“In one word, I’d say: ‘miserable,’ ” said Tuttle, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on about 1,000 acres near Somonauk, about 25 miles southwest of Aurora.

Tuttle has plenty of company.

Historic flooding and heavy spring rains that left wide swaths of farmland muddy, soaked or underwater left many Illinois farmers scrambling to plant their crops after they waited for waterlogged fields to dry. In a state where agriculture remains an essential part of the economy, the wild swings in weather and repeated rounds of drenching rains during the spring — and another batch in September — have put millions of acres of crops at risk.

The soggy weather damaged crops and, in some cases, left entire fields submerged for weeks, unable to be planted at all. Many farmers were unable to plant corn and soybeans until June.

Farmers who overcame the conditions to plant weeks later than usual now face a severely delayed autumn harvest. The lagging harvest has put still-growing crops in danger and has farmers worriedly checking weather forecasts as November inches closer.

As of Oct. 6, only 13% of Illinois corn had been harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The numbers were slightly worse for soybeans, with only 11% harvested, according to the USDA crop progress and condition report. And just 19% of winter wheat has been planted. The quality of the crops also has been affected, with nearly one-quarter of the corn and soybeans in Illinois rated poor or very poor, according to USDA statistics, an uptick of 15% from a year ago.

Farmers across Illinois, especially in the rural communities north of Interstate 80, have yet to harvest much of the corn and soybeans that are the lifeblood of the state’s agricultural economy. A weekend cold snap, with the possibility of frost, figures only to complicate matters.

“We’re delayed severely right now,” said Aron Carlson, who has been farming in Winnebago County west of Rockford since 1991. “Typically, you’ll see the combines rolling even in northern Illinois here around the 15th of September. That’s pretty common. Now we’ll be pretty lucky to be done by Christmas.”

Across the state, 1.5 million acres of farmland were not planted at all. That is tenfold more than what goes unplanted in a normal year, according to John Sullivan, the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture.

“There were many farmers who didn’t pull out a tractor in the whole month of May,” Sullivan said.

For those who did eventually get corn and soybeans into the earth, the “protracted planting season means a protracted harvest,” Sullivan said.

“Normally, they’d be going hot and heavy right now,” Sullivan said. “But there are many, many, many farmers who haven’t turned a tap yet. We’re way, way off where we traditionally are.”

Tuttle said he grew sweet corn this year for Del Monte Foods, but representatives recently came out and, because of wet, muddy soil, were unable to harvest the corn for market on their tight timeline. Now Tuttle, whose farm was pounded with 6 to 8 inches of rain at the end of September, must wait for the ground to dry out in order to harvest himself and figure out a plan for the passed-up corn, likely turning it into feed.

“It’s so wet, you just can’t do anything,” Tuttle said.

Crops on the line

The perils of a late harvest and the ramifications of lower-than-usual harvest numbers are significant. Illinois ranks No. 1 nationally for soybean production and No. 2 for corn (behind Iowa). Since many crops remain unharvested as Halloween approaches, farmers are hoping to avoid a frost, which can damage or destroy corn and soybeans still out in the field.

For Carlson, the Winnebago County farmer, the spring rains made planting difficult. He tried to put some of his corn and soybeans in at the end of April, but constant rain and occasional snow meant he “didn’t get very much in.” Carlson said he planted for a few hours toward the end of May, but wet soil conditions and more rain postponed planting even more.

“Finally,” Carlson said. “We did get the rest of it in, in June.”

Many crops, especially in the northern reaches of the state, have not yet reached maturity, farmers said. And as some of the crops reach maturity, the wet, mucky conditions make it difficult for farmers to bring their heavy harvesting equipment into the fields.

In some areas of the state, especially in the waterlogged counties along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, some farmers were unable to plant any crops at all since fields were either underwater or still too wet to plant. Tuttle said he believes most of his soybeans will be OK this year, but the corn will be more susceptible if a mid-autumn frost hits. A light frost, he said, will nip the leaves of the corn, but a hard frost may be devastating.

Soybeans are harvested Oct. 10, 2019, in Manteno. As of Oct. 6, only 11% of Illinois soybeans were harvested, according to the USDA crop progress and condition report.

Soybeans are harvested Oct. 10, 2019, in Manteno. As of Oct. 6, only 11% of Illinois soybeans were harvested, according to the USDA crop progress and condition report. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

Commodity prices, at least so far, have been mostly stagnant, Sullivan said. Even with the late harvest, if farmers are able to recover and production numbers are respectable — the USDA is forecasting as such — then a lack of supply will not come into play. The global trade war with China, which both Carlson and Tuttle mentioned as a major concern, has dropped demand for U.S. crops.

Whether the challenges of a late harvest will eventually mean higher prices for consumers in the U.S. remains to be seen, Sullivan said.

“We have a wait-and-see attitude,” Sullivan said.

AccuWeather, which had representatives tour Midwestern farms in August, predicted subpar corn yields for 2019, mainly because of the year’s difficult weather patterns. The private weather service estimated that yields in the nation’s top five corn-producing states — Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana — may see yields down 6% to 19% compared with 2018.

AccuWeather said its forecast differs from the USDA because its analysts are concerned that late-planted corn either will not yield well or may be affected by frost.

An unrelenting rain

Illinois has experienced periods of extreme precipitation each of the last four years, according to data from the USDA. In 2018, the state experienced precipitation more than 2 inches above normal in February and June, with above-normal rains again in August and September. In April 2017, the state received rain 3 inches above the norm. The graphs for statewide rainfall over the previous three years look like a rollercoaster at Six Flags, with wild peaks well above normal, then drops to the norm or even below in other months.

Most areas of Illinois have received between 6 and 20 inches of precipitation above normal so far in 2019, according to the Illinois State Climatologist Office. A March report by a team of Midwestern researchers suggests extreme bouts of precipitation and flooding could be the new normal in the Great Lakes region due to climate change. While the United States has seen annual precipitation climb 4% between 1901 and 2015, Great Lakes states have experienced a 10% rise over this same period.

“I hope this is not the new normal,” Sullivan said. “I do have concerns about it, I’ll be honest with you.”

Carlson said the late September deluge also set his harvest back even more, noting that “a crazy amount of rainfall” meant “the wet areas were just getting wetter.”

Brendan Surprenant shows soybeans in a previously flooded field on Oct. 10, 2019, in Manteno. He said in a normal year the soybeans would have been harvested about a month ago.

Brendan Surprenant shows soybeans in a previously flooded field on Oct. 10, 2019, in Manteno. He said in a normal year the soybeans would have been harvested about a month ago. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

More than 30 counties, primarily in the western and southern parts of Illinois, were declared state disaster areas by Gov. J.B. Pritzker because of flooding. And in August, the USDA declared all 102 Illinois counties an “agricultural disaster,” which opened up access to new federal resources and aid. The disaster declaration meant farmers were eligible for low-interest FSA emergency loans to help restore or replace property, pay for living expenses, reorganize family farming operations or refinance certain non-real estate operating debts.

The federal relief has helped mitigate some of the effects of the historic flooding and punishing rains, Sullivan said.

In DeKalb County, Tuttle said he hopes to have his soybeans harvested by Halloween, with his corn to follow. In a normal year, he said, he’d be wrapping up all of his harvesting by now. The race to beat the harsh Midwestern autumn weather is on.

“It’s just not good,” Tuttle said.

———

©2019 Chicago Tribune

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