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Rainy Michigan fall may bring record-low corn, soybean harvest

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

The Michigan harvest is likely to be so dismal this fall it has agricultural experts scurrying to the record books.

The culprit? A former farmer friend turned foe — rain.

In spring, it rained and didn’t stop. It happened again in fall. And then, for good measure, parts of the state received record snowfall Nov. 11 followed by a few days of freezing temperatures.

A farmer harvests his crops near Ubly, Michigan in the Thumb.

The result: Michigan is expected to produce its lowest amount of corn in 15 years, 263 million bushels, according to the federal National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Soybeans will post their lowest numbers in 11 years, 72.2 million bushels, said the statistics service.

The final tally could be even more dismal, state officials said.

“The end of the crop year is proving to be just as difficult as the start,” said Theresa Sisung, a field crops specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau. “The harvest delays this fall are just adding insult to injury at this point.”

The sad refrain continued with other forages and row crops in Michigan, which experienced reduced yields, acres and production.

Michigan is expected to produce 4.05 million tons of sugar beets this year, down 5.4% from 4.28 million tons in 2018. 

But Sisung found a sweet spot in the glumness, saying it would be the sixth largest sugar beet harvest on record.

“2019 was definitely a challenging year, but not a catastrophe," she said. "The crop was quite healthy and appears to have a higher sugar content than last year.”

As for dry beans, the state is forecast to produce 3.93 million hundredweight, a decrease of 15% from last year.

It's too early to say how the poor production will affect prices in grocery stores, economists said.

Even if the cost goes up at the farm level, it doesn't necessarily mean it will increase at supermarkets, said David Ortega, an associate professor at Michigan State University's Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.

Other players in the supply chain may be willing to absorb the costs without passing them on to consumers, he said.

"Even during the fall harvest, there will be a significant lag in terms of how the effects of delayed planting will affect food prices," Ortega said.

The spring weather played havoc with Michigan farmers' planting plans.

Frequent rain and flooding delayed the planting of most crops until late spring or early summer as farmers vainly sought dry spaces between rainstorms, said farmers. Some fields weren't planted at all.

Cooler than normal temperatures didn't help either, said Pam Carlson, who runs a soybean farm in Fenton Township. The cool, wet soil stunted the development of roots, slowing the growth of plants.

"It's been rough. It's been a tough year," Carlson said.

The weather misery continued with droughts interspersed with thunderstorms, farmers said.

Even crops that were planted on time had to deal with wet or muddy conditions and soil moisture that wasn't quite right, agricultural researchers said.

A soybean harvesting operation near Bad Axe, Michigan.

Farmers were left with muddy fields, wide disparities of crop maturity and variable crop conditions, researchers said.

"This was problematic for farmers," said Eric Anderson, a field crops educator at the MSU Extension.

Michigan farmers received more bad news this month.

Sixty-two percent of the state's corn had reached maturity, according to USDA's statistics service. The average for this time of year during the past five years is 89%.

The news was a little better for soybeans.

Ninety percent of Michigan's soybeans had dropped their leaves, which indicates their maturity, said the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The average of this time of year during the past five years is 98%.

These are the types of things that keep farmers up at night, Ortega said.

"Farmers are facing a serious situation," he said. "There are concerns for their livelihoods and how they will get through this season."

In response, MSU Extension has been working with individual farmers, hosting meetings updating them about crops, and publishing articles about the best ways for farmers to deal with the tough conditions.

But the future doesn't seem more promising.

Future springs also are supposed to be wetter than normal, weather forecasters said.

But the Michigan Farm Bureau's crop expert is more hopeful.

"Farmers are eternal optimists and are hopeful for a better 2020," Sisung said.