GREENVILLE, Ohio – Scott Labig spotted Larry Campbell’s tractor from the seat of his John Deere, just on the other side of their shared fence.
These neighbors and friends have been planting side-by-side for 40 years in Darke County, one of Ohio’s leading producers of corn and soybeans.
But this recent June day was different than any other day in those past four decades, and Labig had to call his friend about it. He needed reassurance, connection, encouragement. And it couldn’t wait to talk until they were both done for the day.
Labig was doing something he had never done in his career. Something his father and his grandfather never did either in their time working this same land for the last century.
“I am ashamed of how I am planting corn today,” Labig told Campbell on the phone. “This is terrible.”
He was putting seeds into mud. How could things actually grow in this mess? It didn’t feel like he was doing his job properly. It didn’t look like a garden, he thought.
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Campbell knew what to say because he was telling himself the same thing as he plowed the mud on his side of the fence.
“Close your eyes and keep driving,” he said.
Those dire conditions are actually what good luck looks like for farmers this year. Labig and Campbell were, after all, able to plant something during the few days when the skies closed. Others in Ohio haven’t planted a single seed in 2019 because of the unrelenting rain, particularly in the northwest corner of the state.
In a terrible twist, this is also the area most dependent on sunny skies and warm weather this time of year: These farmers typically produce 45 percent of all of Ohio’s corn.
Still, the record-breaking deluge has put thousands of acres – and farmers – underwater across the state.
This time of year, Ohio’s farmland should be alive and brand new again, peppered with the pop of bright green corn stalks already reaching the height of a tall man’s shins. Instead, standing water comes up to the knee in some fields. Plots are more like muddy swamps where the only thing that’s growing is mold and disease and mosquitoes.
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Unseen and unprecedented
The planting reports confirm this. On June 11, when almost all of Ohio’s corn should have been planted, only 50% of the crop was in the ground, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Farmers should have had 89% of their soybeans in the ground then, too. Instead, they reported about 39% of their crop in the fields.
This is, of course, not a problem that stops at the Ohio border. The planting season, overall, is at its slowest pace in 40 years.
There have been extreme weather events across the Midwest and the Great Plains during this year’s planting season, one that typically ends by early June for corn and mid-June for soybeans.
At the beginning of June, 31 million acres of America’s farmland remained unplanted.
There’s been flooding in Missouri, tornadoes in Indiana and heavy rains pretty much everywhere else.
Farmers across the country are taking to Twitter to share shocking images of unplanted fields, seeking advice, community and comfort from others facing similar trials. It’s a trending topic, and the hashtag says it all: #Noplant19.
It’s already the wettest yearlong period in Ohio since 1895. For the first six months of the year, the state’s seen about 10 inches more than the mean for the last decade. It’s already been called disastrous. In June, Gov. Mike DeWine’s requested a USDA Disaster Designation for Ohio farmers impacted by heavy rainfall.
And according to this week’s forecast, the rain isn’t stopping any time soon.
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Among the number of suffering states in America’s corn belt, Ohio’s planting progress is the worst anywhere. The reason for this actually goes beyond the rain.
When the downpour has stopped for a day or two, cloudy skies and cooler than average temperatures have ensured that the water on the ground isn’t drying up. Even if the sun is out, farmers can’t plant in a puddle.
The impact of unplanted fields for the farmer is immediate and obvious. Fewer plants mean lower yield means less money in the bank. All of this also means more hardship and heartache for a position that already has the highest suicide rate of any job in this country, double even that of veterans.
This isn’t just about the farmers, though. These crops – corn and soybeans – are tied up in a lot of what we all eat and how much we spend on it. So the long term and less obvious impact of today’s rain and mud? That could show up on higher grocery bills.
Still, the future and far-reaching economic consequences are harder to predict than the weather. But, like the rain still standing on fields in Ohio, the costs of delayed planting won’t just disappear on their own.
An uncertain future
That’s how economist Matthew Pot sees it, and he sees a lot. He was raised on a farm in the Canadian province of Ontario, and he also studies grain markets. He’s got a whole company dedicated to it, Grain Perspectives.
Pot can’t say exactly what will happen with the price of corn and soybeans after this wet season, if it will impact prices listed on grocery store shelves.
We already know it won’t impact the corn we buy. That’s because the corn grown in Ohio is not the kind that we eat. However, it is eaten by animals we do eat. It’s mostly raised for livestock feed and for use in ethanol.
There’s still hope, too, that the farmers and the fields aren’t totally doomed. So much of this crop’s fate will be determined by the weather in the next few months, Pot said.
If there are enough sunny, warm days – but not too warm and not too sunny – the shorter season corn that’s been planted in the last couple weeks still has enough time, technically, to grow before the first frost. That is, of course, if the first frost doesn’t come early this year.
The list of potential complexities behind what farmers will grow and sell and what others will buy really could go on and on, and they are even coming from thousands of miles away. Pot, for instance, considers the influence on prices of all the corn coming from a huge harvest in Brazil and Argentina.
And if farmers are trying to avoid corn altogether, the number one substitute – soybeans – is also newly complicated.
Farmers have long rotated soybeans and corn in their fields to keep the soil healthy. But many are turning to soybeans instead of corn this year because soybeans have a shorter grow time.
But the current U.S. trade war with China has created a tumultuous climate for soybean prices. China is the largest buyer of America’s soybeans.
It’s a lot to take in, things are moving quickly and they are changing daily. Uncertainty has been a part of these markets, but even the experts are noticing that the current chaos is unprecedented.
Little things are happening that just don’t happen, like how the USDA is changing bushel yield estimates in June. That’s later than normal.
“2019 will be a year that will be an analog year where people will talk about for the next multiple decades in the industry for sure,” he said, “because it stands out that much.”
Ryan Fennig has seen this, too, in his world. He’s a farmer in Mercer County, but he also is a crop insurance agent. (Scott Labig is a client.)
Fennig’s been getting thousands of calls and texts and emails from his thousand clients in the past year.
They are worried about all that those things that economists like Pot talks about.
But Fennig says the farmers he works with are also driven by another force.
Some didn’t have to plant this year to provide for their families, to survive. They can not plant and file crop insurance and get at least some money for the year.
But he’s heard, time again, that these same folks wanted to plant because they understand there is livestock to feed, people to feed.
Planting may have been the wrong choice for the farmer, but it may have been the right one for his or her neighbor. They have a responsibility.
They think of the bigger picture, he said. That if they don’t get out in the mud today and do what they can, the rest of us may not be able to go to the store and buy milk later.
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A safety net, with some big holes
In the last few months, Fennig said, he’s gone from a crop insurance agent to a psychiatrist. The calls might start at 5 a.m. and keep coming until 2 a.m. He’s usually awake to pick up.
Fennig walks the farmers through options, decisions. He reassures them about what their policies will do. Sometimes, he’ll do more listening than talking.
Farming is always a gamble, a game where the bets are placed against Mother Nature. Every farmer knows that, and crop insurance helps soften the losses.
It’s a relatively new safety net established by the Federal Crop Insurance Act of 1980.
Simply put, it works a bit like long-term disability benefits, helping people still get paid after some catastrophe limits income.
Essentially, farmers get a payment if they have insufficient yields of corn, but the amount of coverage is tied to deadlines for planting.
The last day to file for corn was June 5. On that day, a farmer might expect to get 55% of their average production history covered. But each day after, their coverage goes down 1% daily. (For instance, a June 6 filing would yield 54% coverage.)
The deadline for soybeans is June 20.
Farmers, of course, don’t have to file for insurance even if they have it.
They also don’t have to file insurance for all their acreage, either. That’s what Labig did. He was able to plant corn and soybeans in all but 50 acres of his property.
So much goes into the decision to plant or not, to file or not, but what farmers want is quite simple.
You ask 10 farmers if they want to plant, no matter what, and 10 farmers will tell you “yes,” said Ty Higgins, spokesperson for the Ohio Farm Bureau. But so many of the farmers he’s talked to this year fear they won’t have any income in 2019 if they do bet on the land and plant.
Not farming is unnatural for the farmer. It doesn’t feel right. And there is no way to fix it, to control the weather or the market or international politics.
It’s lonely out in the fields, too. It’s often just the farmer and the farm and those fears for hours and hours.
And most farmers also can’t avoid these worries. They live where they work and work where they live. The Labigs can see the water in their fields from the front windows of their house. It’s so high that wind causes ripples on the surface. Close up, it could be a lake.
Scott Labig processes all of this with a simple focus. He says he takes it one day at a time. Every night, before he goes to bed, he goes to his calendar and writes down what he needs to do the next day. The next day is often just an hour away: These days, he can’t start his list until 11 p.m.
For Campbell, there have been even more sleepless nights.
“It’s been one of those years, you want to wake up and forget about it,” he said.
Fred Pond feels it, too, even though he’s not a farmer.
He’s part of the agriculture industry that goes beyond the field, like the tractor repair shop and the local grain elevator. These are the retail and service operations that also rely on Ohio’s corn and soybean harvest – but they don’t have crop insurance.
He runs Pond Seed Company in Scott, Ohio, and provides products to farmers in some of the areas hardest hit by the rainfall.
His employees are terrified, he said. They are paid on sales commissions, and they can’t sell seeds to farmers who aren’t planting.
Pond bought all of his staff their favorite ice cream the other week. He doesn’t know what else to do.
Strangely enough, Pond has still been really busy.
He’s been spending a lot of time helping farmers make the best decision possible. One farmer made the best decision three times this year.
He first bought corn seed that matures in 112-114 days. Rainfall closed that time frame, so he came back to get 107-109 day corn. Weather, again, closed that window. Then, he came back one more time for 103-day version.
Pond’s even, for the first time, selling 88-day corn seed.
“I’m 60 and I have never seen that,” he said. “This is uncharted territory.”
Controlling the controllable
The soil, however, does offer some hints on where the season is going next.
It’s what Labig and Campbell saw when they were out in their fields. To the trained eye, mud is not just mud out here.
Laura Lindsey, an agronomist with Ohio State University, explains it this way.
It’s called soil compaction. That means that the pore space for air and water is much smaller than it’s supposed to be. It causes erosion and reduced, less healthy crop yields.
“As things get later, you feel more comfortable planting in the marginal conditions,” she said. “Time is running out, and it’s not something we want to do, it’s not something we recommend farmers to do. But when the clock is ticking, it’s really hard. You just can’t wait.”
The clock started ticking for what felt like all of Darke County June 3. The sky would up open again in just about 48 hours.
When Campbell went out to plant on that finally clear day, he could see every one of his neighbors also out on their tractors.
That’s something he’s never seen before, and he saw them all out even after sunset. He saw them because he was still out there, too.
And they all kept working, even when they planted everything they could in their own fields.
Farmers here then head over to their neighbors’ lands, offering to do whatever they can as soon as they can. That’s how Labig’s soybeans got planted, actually.
Two friends, a tractor and a little bit of time made all the difference.