Going into August with optimism

A few days ago, I made an eyeball, passing-on-the-road inspection of roughly two dozen  fields in a small area of central North Dakota. Wheat and soybeans grew on most fields, corn and dry edible beans on the rest.

I’m a journalist, not an agronomist, so my observations were hardly those of an expert. But I didn’t need to be an expert to see partial drown-out in some of the fields and hail damage in parts of others. Nor did I need to be an expert see that, overall, the wheat looked really good and that corn, soybeans and dry beans looked promising, albeit late.

That small group of fields reflects the region’s overall crop. Farmers in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota generally are optimistic about their crops, despite late planting and subsequent weather problems.

A lot of things can still go wrong, and nobody is taking a good harvest for granted. And of course there are pockets where crops have been been ravaged by bad weather already. But we’re going into August in good shape overall; that can’t be said every year.

Fate of key deduction still uncertain

I wrote a story this spring about Section 179, a key tax break that’s important to farmers and ranchers. Members of the region’s Congressional delegation, as well as farm equipment dealers, said the were hopeful of good news but that there were unsure when and if might not come.

Section 179 of the U.S. Internal Revenue Code had allowed farmers and other businesspeople to deduct up to $500,000 of new or used equipment purchased during the tax year. On Dec. 31, however, the limit was restored to $25,000, its original limit, plus a small adjustment for inflation, for the 2014 tax season. Farmers and others want a higher limit, preferably a much higher one.

I’ve been watching the issue for new developments. So far, though, there’s really been nothing to report.

Others are watching, too, of course. Kim Dillivan, crops business farm management specialist with South Dakota State University Extension, says in an online extension publication that it remains to be seen whether Congress can come up an agreement in the next few months.

Section 179 is a big deal in agriculture. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Congress decides.

 

Crop spraying critical, controversial

The late and often-wet growing season has complicated crop spraying for many area farmers. Producers, and the professional applicators they hire, have struggled to find enough favorable weather to spray.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of spraying crops to protect them against weeds, bugs and disease. Without spraying, yields sag, potential profits disappear and the world becomes a little hungrier. Nonfarmers sometimes lose sight of that.

But there’s another aspect to it. No matter how careful farmers and hired applicators are, chemical drift from fields can hurt nearby vegetation, frustrating and angering nonfarmers.

It’s a complicated issue; I don’t pretend to have solutions or answers. But this much I know: there are two sides to it, and both sides need to recognize that.

The shortcomings (and necessity) of generalizations

A few years ago, I wrote a harvest story that said Upper Midwest farmers, on balance, were enjoying good yields. I was careful to note that crops in some areas had been hurt by unfavorable weather and that overall average yields didn’t reflect some farmers’ situation.

Shortly after the story ran, an angry farmer contacted me to complain. His yields had been terrible; how could I possibly write that the harvest was a good one? I pointed out that the story mentioned there were exceptions, which the overall averages didn’t reflect. It didn’t do much good; he was disappointed and frustrated, and needed to let off steam. His anger was really directed at the elements, not at me.

Raising crops in this part of the world requires a huge commitment, both financially and emotionally. Poor prices and yields hurt financially and emotionally. I get that. I really do.

I also get that what’s true for farmers overall isn’t true for all of them. Generalizing about crop and harvest conditions is inherently imperfect, especially in the Upper Midwest. But without making an occasional generalization, I can’t do my job.

Complicated and controversial

It’s said that every story in journalism is important — but that some stories are more complicated than others.

That’s certainly the case with the repeated Souris River flooding that has hurt ranchers in the Towner, N.D., area. Ranchers and water management officials have different takes on what’s causing the problem and what can be done to address it.

Water management is inherently complicated. Controversial, too. Souris River flooding is a prime example.

My article on the flooding and Towner ranchers is the July 14 cover package in Agweek.

The need for heat

There’s a scene in one of the many “Rocky” movies in which Mickey, Rocky’s crusty trainer, glares at the fighter and bellows that he needs more speed.

I can almost picture Upper Midwest farmers glaring at the sky and bellowing that they need more heat. As one farmer told me a few days ago, “Corn and beans need heat. And we haven’t been getting enough.”

The cool weather so common recently simply isn’t supplying the growing degree days that the two crops require to thrive. That needs to change.

In the movie, Mickey pleads for “demon speed.” Farmers don’t want demon heat, of course. But a stretch of consistently warmer temperatures would do wonders for their corn and soybeans.

Does urban growth add to flooding?

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a farmer or rancher complain that urban growth contributes to flooding. They say that new streets, parking lots and golf courses accelerate runoff into streams and rivers, worsening flooding.

I’m not a scientist or water management expert. I’m not qualified to judge if farmers’ claims are accurate.

But a U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet on the subject is interesting. Among its conclusions: “Urbanization generally increases the size and frequency of floods and may expose communities to increasing flood hazards.”

Here’s the link: pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs07603/.

Green and good (but not perfect)

I’ve never visited Ireland and have no great desire to. (A trip to Scotland would be fun.)

But it almost seems like I’m living in Ireland, the so-called Emerald Isle, right now. The crops, pastures and hay fields I’ve driven past in northern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota are as green as I’ve ever seen them. Maybe that’s partly because spring came so late; maybe the slow-to-green-up landscape seems greener than it really is.

But repeated rains and moderate temperatures clearly have bolstered vegetation. No doubt they’ll bolster crop disease, too, and aggies across the region will watch that closely.

Too much rain, like too much of anything, isn’t good. That’s certainly true for the folks hammered recently by terrible storms. My condolences to them. But the rule of thumb in Upper Midwest agriculture — that too much water is better than too little — holds true. Our green, wet summer is far from perfect, but it beats drought.

Do you remember another year in which late June was greener than it is now? If so, drop me a line.

How long will submerged crops survive?

It’s been said that all humor, to some extent, is based on pain. The point is certainly true in rain-drenched Minnesota, which some jokesters say is now the land of 100,000 lakes. Farmers in parts of the state, and in South Dakota, too, have crops under water, and are wondering how long the crops can survive that way.

South Dakota State University Extension officials say the answer depends on several factors. They include:

– Plants lower respiration rates and slow growth of shoots to adapt to temporary reduction in oxygen levels. Generally, most annual crops can tolerate 3 to 7 days of excessive water, with forage legumes tolerating 9 to 14 days.

– The temperature affects plants’ ability to survive excess water stress. The higher the temperature, the faster the rate of oxygen depletion.

– Soil types also affects plants’ ability to survive when submerged. Clay soils tend to hold water longer, increasing the length of time that crops are at risk.

Spring was wet and miserable across much of the Upper Midwest. So far, summer is even worse.

This is the end

There’s a song, a fairly famous one, called “This Is The End” by Jim Morrison and The Doors. I’m not a fan or rock music, but the song keeps playing in my head today.

Heavy rains across parts of the Upper Midwest in the past few days have ended many farmers’ efforts to plant the last of their 2014 crops. Spring came late this year, and the frequent rains that followed further slowed and delayed planting. The recent heavy rains were the knockout blow.

Yeah, this is the end — but only of planting. Most of the crop is in the ground and looking pretty good. If the weather cooperates through harvest, this can end up becoming a year that area farmers remember fondly.