Early planting, hot weather speed up harvest
John Bollingberg remembers a few other years when the area's wheat crop was harvested this early. But there's an important difference with this early harvest.
"Those other years, we didn't have crops of any quality," says Bollingberg, a retired 78-year-old Bremen, N.D., farmer. "But this year, we got the wheat in early and it turned out to be a crop we were happy with."
The Upper Midwest's small grains harvest is virtually wrapped up, and yields and quality generally were good. Small grains were planted early, allowing them to mature soon enough to beat the worst of July's hot, dry weather.
Attention now shifts to other crops, particularly corn and soybeans. Conditions vary widely, with some producers in the Upper Midwest reporting good to average crops and others saying they've been hurt by drought.
"There's the good, the bad and the ugly," says Brian Eggebrecht, a Malta, Mont., farmer and president of his state's Grain Growers Association, of Montana crop conditions. And that applies to the entire Upper Midwest, as well.
Big differences also will come into play when remaining crops are harvested. Some were planted early and could be harvested two weeks sooner than what U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics say is normal, according to famers, extension services and commodity group officials.
Many of the remaining crops were planted at their customary time and will be harvested on the normal schedule, officials say.
The region's soybean harvest typically swings into its most active phase in late September, with corn harvest normally full bore in early October, according to USDA.
But regardless of when fields are harvested, most everyone agrees on one thing: while there's no hope for a region-wide bumper crop, rain would do wonders, especially if it comes by mid-August.
"We could really use 2 inches of widespread rain," says Chuck Gunnerson, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association in East Grand Forks, Minn.
The Red River Valley of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is the nation's leading producer of red potatoes and the only region that produces in volume for the chip, fresh, seed and process markets.
Conditions vary greatly
If 10 area farmers were asked how their crops look, they'd probably give 10 different answers. Some producers went into the growing season with relatively good subsoil moisture; others didn't. Some farmers have received timely rains this summer; others haven't.
Conditions vary greatly, even for the same crop in the same state.
"We were kind of lucky. We caught 3 inches of rain over a week time frame in the last part of July," says Monica McCranie, who farms in the South Dakota town of Claremont, in the northeast part of the state. "Our row crops are looking good."
She expects harvest in her area to start at roughly the normal time.
"So we could use a long, warm fall."
In contrast, Marc Reiner, a farmer in Tripp, in the southeast part of the state, says he expects to harvest only half a normal corn crop because of dry conditions.
Forty-six percent of South Dakota's corn crop was rated poor or very poor on Aug. 12 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of USDA.
Thirty-six percent of South Dakota soybeans were in poor or very poor condition.
Eggebrecht, who farms in northcentral Montana, says crops in his area generally look good. He also says crops across much of the state haven't received enough moisture this growing season.
Farmers in southern Minnesota have been helped by recent rains, but any chance of a big row-crop harvest this fall is gone, says Bradley Carlson, University of Minnesota Extension Service crops educator in Mankato.
Fifteen percent of Minnesota corn and 12 percent of Minnesota soybeans rated poor or very poor.
Don Streifel, who farms near Washburn, N.D., in the west-central part of the state, says crops in his area look better than might be expected.
Bart Schott, whose family farms near Kulm, N.D., in the south-central part of the state, speaks for many farmers in the region when he says, "We were doing OK. But we missed a (needed) rain. So we're losing some ground."
On the plus side, the Schotts this spring planted some low-lying fields that in the past few years were too wet to plant, he says.
"Those fields usually are the ones we get our best crop on," he says.
"I think we'll have a decent crop, but not what we would have had if we'd had a rain (in early August)," Schott says.
Thirteen percent of North Dakota's soybean crop and 14 percent of the state's corn rated poor or very poor.
USDA says 6 percent of North Dakota beets and 4 percent of Minnesota beets were in poor or very poor condition.
Meanwhile, irrigated potatoes grown in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota look good. Potatoes that aren't irrigated have been affected by hot, dry weather, but an average crop of good quality is still possible, Gunnerson says.
No late blight has been reported in area potatoes this growing season, he says.
The dangerous crop disease was discovered in area potatoes in each of the past three growing seasons.
Twelve percent of potatoes in North Dakota and 1 percent in Minnesota were rated poor or very poor.
Dry edible beans look better in some parts of the region than others, reflecting variations in rainfall and subsoil moisture going into the growing season, says Streifel, a director of the Northarvest Bean Growers Association, based in Frazee, Minn.
North Dakota is the nation's leading producer of dry beans, while Minnesota also is an important producer of the crop.
The fate of the region's corn crop is especially important this year. Area farmers, encouraged by strong prices for the crop, planted a record amount of corn this spring.
For instance, North Dakota farmers planted an estimated 3.4 million acres, up more than 50 percent from the 2.2 million they planted in 2011. Schott, chairman of the National Corn Growers Association, estimates that farmers in North Dakota would've planted 4 million acres this spring if they could have obtained enough seed.
Some in agriculture wonder whether this year's drought will encourage area farmers to cut back on corn in the future.
Schott says corn yields and prices ultimately will decide farmers' level of interest in corn. But as matters stand now, corn's economic return is high enough, compared with other crops, that farmers in the Upper Midwest won't turn away from it, he says.
"I don't see us going back," he says.