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Farmers hopeful despite last year's drought

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Cool, wet weather slows planting

By Amber Coulter

Hot and dry conditions last year left Hardin County farmers with stunted, shriveled ears of corn that made for the worst season most of them have experienced.

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For Bob Wade Jr., the difference water makes was visible.

He pulled a plump ear of corn out of a bag during Farm-City Day in November to show visitors the difference the extra water made for the 15 percent of his crop that was irrigated last summer. He then produced an ear with small, dented kernels that made up some of the fields that did not have that advantage.

The irrigated corn yielded about four times more per acre than the rest of the crop.

That’s why Wade decided to irrigate another 5 percent of his crop this season and build a water source on his Sonora farm to sustain irrigation there.

The changes are relatively minor.

Area farmers said they don’t want to be too reactionary to one bad season, wasting money to avoid a threat that might not occur again in the near future.

They’re hoping and praying for better weather, and they hope it begins soon, Wade said.

“We try to mitigate the risk, which is why we put in irrigation,” he said. “Still, when it comes down to it, we’re dependent on Mother Nature for our living.”

In contrast to the conditions that caused so much damage last year, this spring’s cool, wet weather has caused many area farmers to fall behind in spring planting.

Typically, producers begin planting corn and soy beans in early or mid-May and finish near the end of the month.

Wade and many other area farmers still have a significant amount of planting to go.

He hopes the delay doesn’t cause problems for his corn.

Planting in late spring increases the chance the crop will pollinate during the hottest part of the summer, when heat can kill pollen before it reaches the silks on the corn. That reduces yield and could mean another bad year.

That isn’t a sure bet, though. Farmer Larry Thomas said the later-planted corn did better last year than the corn planted in early May because temperatures cooled a little.

Thomas and others agree farmers tend to be optimistic.

“We keep putting crops in the ground,” he said.

Irrigation isn’t realistic for his crops. The option relies on cost-benefit decisions, such as whether there are existing water sources and whether fields are big enough to make the effort worth the expense.

The blow last year was softened for many local growers by a good soy bean crop, planting more wheat than usual and collecting on crop insurance for their ravaged corn.

Wade said crop insurance doesn’t offer as much capital as a strong corn crop. It typically offers enough cash to buy seed, fertilizer and other essentials with the help of bank loans to make it through the next growing season.

“For us, it doesn’t totally make up for a lost crop, but it gives you enough protection so that it doesn’t cripple your business,” he said.

Wade and most farmers he knows prefer to sell a good crop than fall back on crop insurance on which they pay premiums.

“I know that that’s going to feed people, and it’s never pleasant to have a crop that you’re not harvesting,” he said.

Wade said he hasn’t had any trouble obtaining loans to add irrigation to his operation, especially because it improves the likelihood of his business being successful.

Thomas said most upgrades and new equipment have to wait after a bad year and the limited capital it brings.

Mark Thomas said having a bad year financially affected newer farmers like him more than it did some long-time growers because they haven’t had time to build reserves and have to rely more heavily on loans.

He can’t afford another bad year and is hoping to get the last quarter of his corn and the second half of his soy beans in the ground soon to give the crops the best chance of high yields.

Thomas is hopeful  the rain that slowed planting continues and makes the rest of the growing season successful.

“Just like the good years, you can’t expect those every year,” he said. “You can’t expect a drought every year. You just plant and hope for a few hundred bushels and sometimes you get them. Sometimes you don’t.”

Amber Coulter can be reached at (270) 505-1746 or acoulter@thenewsenterprise.com.