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The worst planting season has lasting ripple effects

By Dusty Sonnenberg, Ohio Field Leader

In what would normally be a productive and exciting time of year on the Hesterman farm in Henry County, mid- to late-summer of 2019 was largely spent watching the weeds die in otherwise barren fields.

“Every morning I set out on my front porch and have a cup of coffee and watch the ragweed dry up in the fields from the chemical applications we made. It’s not the farming practices I am used to,” said Todd Hesterman, a fourth generation farmer in Henry County. “This year we have been served a big slice of humble pie. I see fields that were never planted, and then one corn field in the distance that is way behind. I don’t feel good about either one.”

While some farms in the county were able to get a portion of their crops planted, albeit late, Todd and a handful of his neighbors were in a pocket that was inundated by regular and overabundant rainfall and elected to go 100% prevented planting. Not one of his 1,200 acres of corn and soybean was planted this spring. According to his father, Ron, who turned 84 this year, that is a first for this family farm that has tilled the fertile soils just north of Napoleon since 1892.

“Prevent plant served its purpose,” Hesterman said, referring to the crop insurance product. “We buy our crop insurance coverage up to the next level, and that factored into our decision process.”

This weather scenario started last fall with wet weather and soil compaction during harvest and the rains continued through spring. Like the Hestermans, many farmers were forced to take off their “farmer hat” and put on their “business hat” this spring to make some tough decisions about planting.

“We knew our cost of production, and that number changed daily as the yield expectations changed the later the we got into the spring,” Hesterman said. “Every day the variables changed in terms of the weather and ground conditions. Plans you made in the evening changed by the next morning. With crop insurance, you know what you get, and that safety net helped give us peace of mind.”

That peace of mind, however, does not address the many challenges remaining in his unplanted fields. The decision not to plant has led to an entire new set of decisions to be made. When Hesterman talks about the condition of his soils this year, he uses words like “hard,” “out of shape,” and “sour.”

Weed control on the prevent plant acres is also becoming a concern. Residual herbicides were not included initially so crop rotational issues would not be a concern as he made cover crop decisions.

“Most of the fields have been sprayed, but without a residual herbicide the weeds are coming back,” he said. “This ground will need a cover crop to get it to heal. We are trying to use a holistic approach on our acres. We know they need rejuvenated. The soils have sat so wet for so long and in an anaerobic state. We need a jumpstart to get life growing back in the soil. We will use this as a year for maintenance and to rejuvenate our soils.”

He is planning on using a combination of oats and radishes as a cover crop mix. He has been researching cover crops to develop a plan that includes a look ahead. In his mind, cover crops need to be treated like a traditional crop in terms of the proper planting date to get the best establishment and to gain the most benefit as they complete their lifecycle.

Farmers are in business to grow crops. And, from a business standpoint, this year has been an exercise in making difficult decisions throughout the farm economy.

“There are a lot of moving parts. Everyone needs to revisit the risk/reward aspect of their decisions. There will be changes in spending habits. Knowing your cost of production and cost per acre per farm is critical,” Hesterman said. “Merchandisers set themselves apart by how they treated the farmer with negotiated buy-outs and in the way different vendors handled purchasing back input products. Loyalty is necessary in this environment. We all need each other. They need the farmers and the farmers need them.”

The ripple effects of this impact to production agriculture will be felt far beyond the farmer’s pocket and balance sheets. Many rural businesses are expressing concern. Agricultural cooperatives, farm equipment dealers, seed sales, and even insurance companies and automotive dealerships have felt the effects of the situation. Many observers fear the worst is yet to come with lower yields at harvest this fall, or the lack of crops to harvest in many cases. Looking out the window across the acres of unplanted cropland is frustrating from a business standpoint, and emotionally very difficult as well.

“Most guys seem to be taking it in stride. While most of the neighbor’s fields look the same, everyone’s financial situations are different,” Hesterman said. “Your stress level goes up as your ability to pay your bills goes down. It was frustrating in the spring not being able to get out and plant a crop. It will be even more challenging, emotionally, not to have a crop to harvest in the fall.”

Ohio Field Leader is a project of the Ohio Soybean Council. For more, visit ohiofieldleader.com.

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