'We're at (Plan) D': Rains threaten Michigan’s corn, soybean farmers

Breana Noble
The Detroit News
Jay Williams stands in one of his fields that is still too wet to plant corn on his farm of 1,350 acres in Waldron, Michigan on May 28, 2019.

Days before his corn-planting deadline for crop insurance, farmer Jay Williams has no seeds in the ground, and the weather forecast doesn't look sunny.

"We just have not had an opportunity where the ground is dry enough," said Williams, 44, the owner of Stoney Ridge Farms in Michigan's Hillsdale County. "We have not experienced a full month of May where we haven't been able to do any field work, and it’s very unusual."

The Waldron farmer isn't alone. Storms have reduced the planting pace across the country for corn to the slowest on record for this time of year. In Michigan, where corn contributes roughly $1 billion to the economy and covers more of Michigan than any other crop, only 33% of the corn had been planted by Sunday compared to the five-year average of 73%. Soybeans also are behind.

Late planting eats into farmers' yield potential and can risk their chances of cashing in on crop insurance. That makes Michigan farmers nervous with oversupply having sent prices down in recent years and a trade war with China contributing to tightening margins. It also may mean higher prices for consumers when the crop comes to harvest.

Williams' deadline to plant his 600 acres of corn is June 5. He also has 460 acres for soybeans and grows a couple hundred acres of alfalfa and wheat. Some of his land is so saturated that water sits in puddles, conditions that won't allow a seedling and its root structure to develop properly, if at all. It can take days to a week for the land to dry.

"We may have to seek some other revenue sources, whether that’s different kinds of custom work or a different type of employment," Williams said. "You've got plan A, B, C, D, E and F. We’re at about D right now."

He is looking at renting out some assets such as the farm's semi-trucks and machinery or doing work on other nearby farms. There is potential to plant soybeans instead of corn because they have a longer planting season, Williams said.

But if too many farms switch to that crop, it will make prices even worse for soybeans, which already are unprofitable, he said. With news Thursday that China has put on hold purchases of U.S. soybeans, according to Bloomberg News, that is likely to get worse.

The Trump administration's plan to help farmers hurt by the trade war with China that's roiled prices, however, could sway farmers to soybeans. Government officials were considering payments of $2 per bushel to soybean farmers and 4 cents per bushel to corn farmers, the Associated Press reported last week.

Federally assisted crop insurance will help cover the work put into the preparations of the land for planting, but it won't replace profits, Williams said.

"It helps you survive to the next year," he said, "but it's really not a financial boon by any means."

Most farmers have some sort of crop insurance to help in years like this.

"Farmers want to plant a crop," said Theresa Sisung, associate field crop and advisory team specialist for the Michigan Farm Bureau. "They love their job. They want to get into the fields. They want to be working the ground. Unfortunately, Mother Nature is making that incredibly challenging for them right now."

'Double whammy'

But some remain optimistic. David Williams, who owns W Farms LLC in Elsie, has planted more than 600 acres of soybeans, but none since April. More than 2,000 acres sit empty.

"The land almost dries, it seems like, and then it rains again. It's a really bad situation," David Williams said. "I think we will be able to plant more. It may not be what we planned to. We can vary varieties both in soybeans and corn to compensate for a shorter growing season."

Last year, farmer Randy Poll finished planting his 2,500 acres late — around June 10. Only about 25% has been planted so far this year. The farm in Hamilton on Michigan's west side may switch some of its 1,800 acres of corn to another crop, but since Poll also uses the corn to feed his pigs, that is a "double whammy."

"We’ve got the expense of the land that we’re not getting anything from after the inputs we put into those fields, the time of work from last fall," Poll said. "Then we have to go back and buy more corn when corn is not as plentiful and more expensive. That makes it more of a challenge."

The farm is holding off replacing and buying new equipment because Poll doesn't know what his revenue will look like.

Sugar beets

Meanwhile, sugar beets planting was able to catch up a little bit over the past week, increasing from 74% of the crop planted to 90%. The five-year average is 98% by this time of year.

Farmers who are part of the Bay City-based Michigan Sugar Co. cooperative have planted about 147,000 acres of sugar beets, about 10,000 fewer than its goal. Planting is about two weeks behind, said Jim Ruhlman, the cooperative's executive vice president, but he remains optimistic the seeds will get into the ground. If not, that could delay harvest past the typical Aug. 20 date to allow the crop to have some extra time for growth and maturity.

"We're in decent shape," Ruhlman said. "It's not time to be alarmed yet."

Although saturated ground makes planting a challenging, for the first time in years the soil at 30 inches deep is at a good saturation level, a positive after a dry July and August last year contributed to a sugar content in beets of less than 15.5% compared to a typical 18%, Ruhlman said.

"Sugar beets love to go into the ground and suck out the moisture," he said. "During the drier weather, even though that top layer is dry, our sugar beets still go down and pull out that moisture."

Ruhlman joins many Michigan farmers who are trying to find the bright side as they wait for the sunshine.

"Farming is a unique way of life," Hamilton's Poll said. "We kind of learn to roll with the punches. We have a lot of faith it's going to work out all right."