It was a mad rush for area crop farmers this week. Diesel engines roared to life and seed corn streamed into hoppers. Farmers leapt into their tractor cabs with no time to spare and worked late into the night. Dry moments in between last week's showers were the first chance for many to work their fields this year.
Photo by Chris Rogers
. In the field for the first time this year, Winona County Farm Bureau President Glen Groth hurried to cultivate his fields before seeding corn and oats. He knows that he may never again have a season as good as 2012. New data documents that boom year.
Lewiston dairy and crop farmer Duane Wirt switched the lights on in his tractor and planted oats and alfalfa until 1:30 a.m. on his first day of field work last week and put in another late night planting corn. Asked how he copes with such long days, Wirt laughed and answered, "With a little Mountain Dew, a little chocolate, and a good radio station."
A colder and wetter than average spring pushed plantings back, giving Winona County Farm Bureau President Glen Groth and others fewer days than normal to get their corn seed in the ground. By this time of year, Minnesota farmers are usually close to halfway done with corn and oat plantings, but as of last Sunday, eight percent of Minnesota's corn crop had been planted and twelve percent of oats. That is still better than this time last year, when only two percent of Minnesota corn was planted, and a stubbornly cold spring caused significant acres of delayed plantings for local farmers.
Groth was among those racing across local fields, seeding hay, corn, and oats in between milking chores at his family farm near Ridgeway. "We're off to a later start than I was hoping for, but I'm always optimistic," he said.
Corn yields tend to decline if planted later than May 10, so farmers were in a frenzy to plant as much as possible, Wirt explained. However, that rule of thumb did not hold true last year, when an unseasonably warm fall boosted late plantings, Wirt pointed out. "You just never know with farming," he said.
Wirt and Groth were both planting hay fields, as well. Winter kill ruined half of Wirt's alfalfa last year. Since then, he has planted replacement fields, but the alfalfa will take a year or two to become established.
Census captures brief, profitable stretch
In the midst of the season's hurried planting, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released new information on the state of Winona County agriculture. The censuses survey agricultural activity in a given year once every five years. The most recent census fell on 2012, when corn prices soared to well over $7 per bushel. Prices have since fallen to the $4.60 range, but the census documents the surge in revenue on Winona County farms with the total market value of crops sold doubling from $47 million in 2007 to $107 million in 2012 and total net farm income multiplying by nearly as much, from $48.6 million to $89.4 million. The number of Winona County farms reporting more than $500,000 in sales increased from 89 to 116. Twenty years ago, that number was 15.
Groth said he saw larger profits that year than he has ever seen before or may ever see again. That was a very good year, Wirt agreed. "Once or twice in your lifetime will you ever have the opportunity to make that kind of profit," he said.
However, that does not mean farmers "were out buying condos," Groth said. "There were a lot of people catching up from the previous 20 years or saving up going forward," or buying needed equipment, he said.
Not everyone was a winner, however. High corn prices was bad news for livestock farmers who purchase feed, and the surge in prices also drove up land values, rent, and taxes. Those have yet to come back down. The percentage of Winona County farms reporting profits increased, but that still left 34 percent in the red for that year. "No matter how good times are, somebody's losing money," Groth said. There is some truth to the saying that farmers are the biggest gamblers in society, Wirt commented.
Since 2012, Minnesota farm income has plummeted, dropping by 78 percent, according to the University of Minnesota Extension. "2012 was really a huge year for returns and 2013 really showed a very different picture," explained Winona County Extension Educator Jacob Overgaard. Extension economist Dale Nordquist said that given the size of margins in 2012 the large decrease is not surprising, but "the question is how long will these reduced profits last?" The Extension forecasted narrow margins for crop farmers this season.
The USDA census also tracked a familiar trend: the decrease in dairy farms. The total number of farms, of all types, decreased from 1,203 to 1,115. The number of dairies dropped from 251 to 205 between 2007 and 2012. In 1992, there were 470 dairies in Winona County, and in 1987 there were 525.
The number of dairy cows milked declined by a much smaller margin, which could reflect continued farm consolidation. "With newer technology and lower margins, to justify the cost of the technology you have to have larger herds," Wirt said of the drivers on continued consolidation.
Reflecting on the decrease in the number of dairies, Groth pointed out that there have been a lot of older farmers who have retired from the hard work of dairying.
Land Stewardship Project organizer Doug Nopar said that federal dairy policies in the Farm Bill have played a role in the demise of small and mid-sized family dairies.
In the last quarter century, "Winona County has gone from primarily a livestock county to primarily a cash crop county," Nopar said. The loss of hay fields and pasture that has accompanied rising grain prices and the decline of small dairies is a shame because those fields stop erosion and improve water quality, he added.
County zoning has also limited the dairy industry, Groth said. "I could see where Winona County could be really strong in dairy again, but it's going to take some policy changes at the county level" to make it easier for dairy farmers to expand their operations.