Farmers have to take the good with the bad, and this year is no exception. The Winona area was spared the worst of the Midwestern drought, and with the harvest underway, local farmers reported solid yields. Crop prices are up significantly from past years, but tar spot disease is affecting more corn fields this year and steep fertilizer prices for next year will eat into farmers’ earnings.

“Yields should be really pretty good this year,” Winona County Farm Bureau President Glen Groth said. “There should be spots where you get farther west and north of here, where the drought had a bigger impact.” He continued, “I think most people were happy to get in the field a little earlier this year. We had enough heat this summer to kind of push the crop along, and the dry weather pushed things along, as well, but we had enough rain to green things up.”

The local area had a dry year, with as much as six inches less rain than normal over the course of the growing season, according to the National Weather Service. However, it could have been much worse. For a large stretch of the summer, the Winona area was the only part of Minnesota not in drought, and even this week, most of the rest of the state was either officially drought stricken or experiencing “abnormally dry” conditions, the weather service reported.

“The yields are better than I thought they would be with the amount of rain that we had,” Trempealeau County Farm Bureau President Shane Goplin said. “It’s not going to be a bin-buster year, but they’re going to be really solid. Beans are, so far, doing much better than I expected they would with the amount of rain that we had. That was really a surprise.” He continued, “This summer, we didn’t have a lot of rain, but we had timely rains where we gave up some yield especially on the corn, but once they started showing drought stress, we were able to get a little bit of rain. Not a lot, but enough.”

A different issue is affecting yields for some farmers: tar spot. Tar spot is a fungal disease that attacks corn plants and can cause “significant yield loss,” according to the University of Minnesota (U of M) Extension. It was first discovered in Southeast Minnesota in 2019, and Groth and Goplin said they saw more of it this year.

“That’s the problem we’re having this year, where we have a lot of stalk quality issues with some varieties where the stalks aren’t standing,” Goplin said, describing an effect of the disease. Tar spot can weaken corn stalks until they fall over, making them impossible to combine. “It’s a race with Mother Nature to harvest those in time,” he said. “… And if we had a wind event right now, they wouldn’t be able to take much of a wind event. Some of the stalks, you just touch them and they fall apart.”

“It’s progressively migrating north,” Goplin continued. “You talk to our peers in Janesville and southern parts of the state, they’ve had this for a few years. Diseases and fungus — they seem to migrate north over time … I saw it for the first time on our farm last year, and this year it was worse. But we’re still fortunate that it came in late enough, that … the crop was much more mature when it came in.”

Groth said some of his fields that were treated with fungicide were better off. As to whether the disease will have a big impact on yields, he responded, “It’ll be tough to say … There will be areas where it’ll have a considerable impact. You get to some of these valleys that are cooler and wetter, the disease seems to thrive in those areas.”

As long as their crops can stay standing, local farmers should enjoy much higher prices for their yields. The price of corn was up to $6.12 per bushel as of July, according to the USDA. Futures markets reported fall prices as down a bit from that. Still, that’s close to twice the price farmers received in recent past years: $3.29 per bushel in 2020 and $3.56 in 2019, according to one USDA metric. 

Similarly, soybean prices were up to nearly $14 per bushel at the end of September, the USDA reported. They were under $9 per bushel for most of 2020 and 2019.

Unfortunately, many farmers may not be able to hold onto those revenues for very long because fertilizer prices have shot up. Anhydrous ammonia prices were up 70 percent, the U of M extension reported in August, and an October 8 Bloomberg News report showed some fertilizer prices more than doubling over the course of the year.

“We’re talking $30 an acre increases in fertilizer costs for some farms here,” Groth said. “A lot of the input costs, those will be felt next year more than this year, but by later this year, farmers will be pre-paying for next year’s inputs,” he explained.

“I’m probably more nervous than I’ve ever been in my life,” Goplin confessed. “Yes, the [crop] prices are up … If the harvest is good, we could have a good year. But now the caveat to that is the inputs for 2022 — the prices for that have more than doubled … Any money I have is going to next year’s crop inputs.”

Global supply chain disruptions have contributed to those high fertilizer prices, as well as shortages of some farm equipment, Groth explained. “It’s too early to say if it’s some golden era for agriculture here, because everybody else gets their chunk here,” he said.