Business

For Iowa farmers, at least planting goes well

'Perfect storm' of turbulent market adds uncertainty

Farmer Lance Lillibridge (left) kneels down alongside farm hand Jake Long on Wednesday to take a look at field corn spro
Farmer Lance Lillibridge (left) kneels down alongside farm hand Jake Long on Wednesday to take a look at field corn sprouting up two weeks after it was planted on his farm in Vinton. Planting conditions may be one of the few silver linings for farmers coping with trade disputes and dropping demand. “It’s not like we can just shut off corn production for 30 days and pick it back up,” he said. “We have to be optimistic that somehow, someway, this is going to work.” (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — A “perfect storm” has hit Iowa farmers.

Already coping with tariffs stemming from the U.S. trade dispute with China and with dropping ethanol demand, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “massive market disruption,” according to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

Livestock producers are being hit, which means a decreased demand for feed. Transportation is down, which means less need for corn-based ethanol. With restaurants not serving as many meals, the call for soybean oil for fryers is down.

“It’s a perfect storm,” said Ben Schmidt, an Iowa City area corn and soybean farmer. “All of those little things compound and become big things.”

If there is any silver lining to that storm, it is the growing conditions this spring. Ideal temperatures and the right amount of rain has allowed Iowa farmers to get their crops planted much faster than in years past.

According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture crop progress and condition report for Iowa, 91 percent of the expected corn crop and 71 percent of the soybean crop as of May 10 is planted. In some areas of the state, close to 100 percent of the corn has been planted, along with 80 to 90 percent of soybeans.

Anthony Martin, an agronomist with the Iowa Soybean Association, said farmers he’s spoken with have described this spring as the “best conditions we’ve seen in a long time.”

“I’m only 30,” Martin said. “But I don’t think I can remember a time when pretty much everything was wrapped up in the first two weeks of May.”

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It’s been an ideal spring for Lance Lillibridge, District 6 director for the Iowa Corn Growers Association, who farms 1,450 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa hay in Vinton, in addition to the 700 acres of farming he does for another landowner.

“The last two years were very, very troublesome,” Lillibridge said. “It was so wet. We didn’t have much of a window to put our crops in. This year, we’ve had really fantastic weather. A little cooler than what we’d like, but as far as planting conditions, they were actually pretty good.”

Lillibridge has had all of his crops in for nearly two weeks, putting him 30 days ahead of the 2019 planting season. In 2018, he finished up around May 25.

Schmidt said he had his corn and soybeans in by May 4. It took him nine to 10 days to plant this year, as opposed to the 43 it took in 2019.

Both farmers said those ideal planting conditions will allow them to get work done around the farm and prepare for upcoming projects, like fertilizing.

In addition to the decreased stress of not being under the gun to get crops in, the early planting is good for the crops themselves. Martin said it means more time for plants to emerge, get sunlight and mature.

“That all translates to yield,” he said.

That yield will be vital to farmers combating decreased crop prices that can mean the cost of production outpaces what they’ll sell their crop for.

“The financial implications out here are absolutely horrible,” Lillibridge said.

But while other businesses and industries can scale back production or reduce their workforce, that’s not an option for farmers, Lillibridge said.

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Imagine if farmers across the state just decided not to plant this year and the ripple effect that would have, Lillibridge said.

“It’s not like we can just shut off corn production for 30 days and pick it back up,” he said. “We have to be optimistic that somehow, someway, this is going to work. ... What we’re doing here is feeding and fueling the whole world, not just Iowa. And if we don’t do this, not only will it destroy our lives as we know them, it would destroy everybody else’s as we know it, too.”

Naig called the planting progress a much-needed “bright spot” for Iowa’s farmers.

“It means we’ve got a really, really good start,” Naig said. “The rest of it has to play out. It’s a great place to be right now.”

Naig said the current economic conditions present a “very tough situation across the board” for farmers.

He said the best hope is to get the economy back on track. Though he doesn’t know how quickly that will return to normal, he said he’s encouraged by plans to reopen the state, which could restore demand for corn and soybeans.

“We’re still Iowa,” he said. “We’re in a very good position. There are a lot of folks that need the things we produce and that will always be true. We’re well-positioned to rebound and grow when we get to the other side of this.”

Comments: (319) 339-3155; lee.hermiston@thegazette.com

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