Wet spring

Photo courtesy of Purdue University

The water on this Indiana farm field looks more like a lake following frequent rains this spring.

WHITE COUNTY — This time last year, nearly all of Indiana farmers had planted their corn fields.

As of Monday, only about 67 percent of Hoosiers had finished their corn planting.

A spring full of rain and few stretches of dry days has kept Hoosier farmers on their toes as they wait for their fields to be plantable.

Sow too soon and the farmers run the risk of compressing their soil, causing damage that could last years, according to Purdue professor of agronomy Natalie Carroll. Wait too long, and farmers could compromise their chances of a yield entirely, and make themselves ineligible for federal aid programs that require planted acreage.

“It has been wet and farmers have been very far behind,” said Andrew Westfall, White County Purdue Extension director. “I’d say (this is) the wettest spring that this generation has seen.

“We’ve never been able to dry out.”

Jeff Demerly, president of the White County Indiana Farm Bureau and seed farmer, works with several farmers and knows the challenges local farms have faced in deciding when — and if — it’s a good idea to plant this season.

“It’s been a challenge,” Demerly said, sitting outside the Monticello bureau office during its Customer Appreciation Day. “(We’re) well over a month behind.”

Demerly said a lot of variables contribute to a farmer’s end yield, and as planters are generally optimistic people, there’s still a long summer ahead for things to change and corn to grow.

Still, the wet spring hasn’t started farmers off on particularly good footing.

Constant rain has kept farmers out of their fields as they can’t plant seeds until the soil is loose and crumbly, which allows for air and water ventilation throughout the growing season. An article from Purdue horticulturalist Rosie Lerner notes that planting on wet soil with heavy equipment compacts the dirt, making it difficult for roots, water, air and other materials to travel through the soil.

“Heavy equipment really negatively impacts soil health, mainly do to compaction which once started, lasts for many years — something farmers work hard to improve as it directly impacts production and the future productivity of a field,” Carroll said.

Effects of compaction can last for many years and can require “annual applications of organic matter, such (as) composted plant and animal wastes” to repair, according to Lerner.

The wet soil can also lead to another, simpler problem that’s still difficult to remedy.

“You can just plain get stuck,” said Purdue agronomy professor Eileen Kladivko.

Kladivko reprised the dangers of compacted soil, especially for no-till farmers who don’t mechanically loosening their fields.

“The plants basically suffer,” she said. “It takes time for that to get broken up.”

Since farmers are waiting longer to plant, they have to deal with a smaller window of time for their crops to grow, mature and be ready for harvest by the end of the season. This means yields from America’s Corn Belt may be lower than expected, according to reports from the United States Department of Agriculture.

One other effect of the excessive rain that’s poured through the Midwest is the relative increase in soybean crops, as farmers “crop-switch,” planting soybeans where they previously intended to plant corn. With America’s top soybean buyer locked in a tariff tiff with the U.S. government, this isn’t even necessarily a definite win for farmers.

According to Hanenkratt Grain Co Inc.’s website, Monticello cash bids for corn are set at $4.31 and for soybeans at $8.47 for Sept. 19. These figures have decreased by 25 cents and 65 cents, respectively.

The poor conditions and possible lower revenues don’t just hurt farmers, according to Demerly.

“This affects all your small businesses,” he said. “(There are) so many people wrapped around the American farmer.”