Spring is historically a season of hope – a time for new beginnings. For the agriculture industry, it’s planting time – the start of a new cycle and an optimistic outlook. This spring, however, is uncharted territory for those in the industry.
For North Dakota corn farmers, the first order of business this spring is to get last year’s crop out of the field.
“We still have corn that is not harvested in some areas of the state,” said North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “The snow has finally melted away, but some of the fields were so soft and there’s some water standing in some areas, so (farmers) couldn’t complete some harvesting. It varies across the state.”
With cool weather to start the week ending April 17, there’s hope the ground firmed up enough to support machinery in order to get harvest done and clean up some edges of the fields, according to Goehring.
With how cool temperatures were in early-April, there has been some discussion about delayed planting because farmers were finding only about 6 inches of soil depth had been thawed out.
“They’ve had some problems getting in to do vertical tillage on a lot of those corn acres,” Goehring said. “A lot of guys are talking about doing tillage to get rid of that residue because it didn’t have time to break down or blow away.”
This spring will be different, that’s for sure. Between still having to harvest last year’s corn crop and the impacts of COVID-19 on the industry, Goehring says there’s a lot of consternation among farmers about what they are going to plant this year.
“I’ve never seen so much apprehension,” he said. “Some people are saying, ‘I made a plan last fall and I’m sticking to it,’ while others are just all over the board. The more they watch the markets, the more depressed and concerned they are.”
Based on his discussions with farmers, Goehring believes corn acres are going to be down significantly in North Dakota this year, anywhere from 20-30 percent less than 2019. These estimations were further justified recently through the shutting down of ethanol facilities across the country.
“Ethanol in the U.S. consumes about 40 percent of our corn crop, so that has people concerned,” he said. “If we don’t have export markets and we aren’t moving ethanol, who knows how long until we get out of this slump with fuel prices. Right now, gasoline is cheaper than ethanol.
“If an ethanol producer is only able to get 2.8 gallons out of a bushel and they’re paying $2.80 for that bushel and they’re selling that gallon for $0.89 in the market, it’s a concerning situation,” Goehring continued. “There’s some real heartaches going on out there. People have been so non-committal, for the most part. There’s a lot of anxiety about what to plant this year. There’s not much excitement about getting into the field, or about spending money.”
There’s no magic wand to wave over the situation to make things better. For Goehring, it all comes down to getting back to work.
“With these shelter-in-place orders, a lot of our food processors and processing facilities are just shut down,” he said. “Livestock aren’t able to be slaughtered, and while consumers are eating larger amounts of meat protein, like beef, they’re now doing it in the form of hamburger. People aren’t going through a drive-thru to get a T-bone.”
Even though those in the agriculture industry have been deemed “essential” and are exempt from the shelter-in-place orders in many states, many are still not showing up to work, according to Goehring, which is adding to issues of processing product.
“Some people just aren’t showing up to work, either out of fear or the fact that they can make more off unemployment by just sitting by and ride this thing out. Either way, our communities are hurting from it,” he said. “Thank God seed, fertilizer and plant protection products are still moving, but it’s hard to imagine what we’ll do in terms of harvesting this upcoming crop and moving it if we don’t have things back to normal.”
Goehring says his department assisted in putting out a concept paper to Secretary Perdue to identify some help and relief for the beef industry with direct payments. For the lamb and sheep/wool industries, they asked for relief with exports. He encourages farmers and ranchers to reach out to his department if they have any specific issues.
“We’re all in this together,” he concluded.