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Published in Food/Agribusiness
Soggy fields hamper Michigan farmers COURTESY PHOTO

Soggy fields hamper Michigan farmers

BY Sunday, July 07, 2019 07:00pm

Time has run out for about 10 percent of crops in the state, as Michigan farmers face delays related to one of the wettest spring seasons on record. 

That’s according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reported that 92 percent of the intended Michigan corn plantings are in the ground, as compared to seeded acreage in 2018, and only 85 percent of soy is planted statewide. In addition, soggy fields also have prevented farmers from harvesting hay for livestock.

Ground conditions have finally started to dry out, but for many farmers, it’s too little, too late.

“This is a first for me,” Randy Poll, a third-generation farmer at Poll Farms Inc., told MiBiz. “We hopefully would be done (planting) around the first of June on a normal year. This is the first year I never got everything in.” 

Poll Farms is based south of Holland in Hamilton with additional farmland in VanBuren County. Poll has been working the land for 40 years. Approximately 200 acres of the family’s 2,100 acres will go uncultivated this year because of the weather conditions, he said. 

“We really were in the fields about two to three days sooner than what we would like to be because of the wetness of the soil. It’s a tough call to make, but we’re glad we did because at least now we got most of it,” Poll said in an interview from his John Deere tractor as he applied nitrogen to his crop. “Now, going through the field, I can see yellow spots in the corn where it was just too wet and too cold. It’s growing, but it’s not looking healthy.” 

Ideal conditions for planting are dry and dusty, according to Poll. Without dust, the trenches have trouble closing and the seeds will not germinate.

“The ground is just so full of water that it takes too long to dry,” he said. “The people I’ve talked to down here in VanBuren County say their ponds are the highest they’ve been in years just because there is so much groundwater.”

Even Poll Farms’ tiled fields, a type of drainage system that removes excess water from soil below its surface, stayed wet this year. 

According to reports, only 3.5 days this spring had provided proper conditions for work in fields, many of which remained flooded at the time. As well, the USDA noted the spring was one of the wettest periods on record both in Michigan and nationwide. 

The unusual weather also has caused delays for Michigan’s specialty crop farmers, said Lacey Zersky of Krupp Farms in Comstock Park. The family-owned farm includes 18 acres of planted strawberries and nearly 4 acres of raspberries. Krupp Farms usually grows its own wheat as well, but this is the first spring it has gone without, Zersky said. 

This season’s weather also has delayed berry picking at the farm by more than two weeks, according to Zersky. 

“I don’t think anything this spring helped us,” she said. “One of the biggest challenges has been getting on the fields because we just had puddles everywhere.” 

Mold and fungus that thrive in damp conditions have presented even more problems, especially in older fields with dense canopies. 

“We had to use a bunch of fungicides,” she said. “It’s just been impossible to keep under control because it rains and it spores and it all spreads.”

Assistance needed

To help farmers cope with the unusual conditions, Michigan lawmakers last month voted to allocate $15 million to a low-interest loan program. The funding is available to help farmers across the state who will suffer crop or revenue losses, as MiBiz previously reported. More than 410 farmers contacted state legislators in advance of the vote, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau (MFB).

“It’s humbling to see the legislature understand what’s happening and be willing to step up to the plate for our industry,” MFB President Carl Bednarski said in a statement. 

Affected growers, processors and handlers will be eligible for a 1-percent interest rate on loans, and the program is not commodity specific, according to MFB.

However, neither Poll nor Zersky said they were interested in taking out loans for any losses they could face this year. 

“The loan is a great concept, but it’s hard to make up when you don’t get the cash,” Poll said. “It still has to paid back. Even if you have crop insurance, it’s not like getting all the revenue from a full crop. That’s the sad thing.” 

The crop struggles come on top of other fundamental challenges for farmers in Michigan and across the country, where overall farm sector debt has soared to a record high in recent years, even higher than in the infamous 1980s. That’s when thousands of farm operations financially collapsed after producers dealing with low crop prices fell behind on high-interest land and equipment loans. 

The current situation has forced producers and lenders to become more concerned about the concentration and risk exposure of that debt load, according to a report from Michigan Farm News

As well, farmers have been struggling to pay back loans after multiple years of low crop prices and losses caused by foreign tariffs. In January, the default rate spiked to its highest level in at least nine years, according to an Associated Press report. Nationwide, 19.4 percent of USDA Farm Service Agency direct loans were delinquent, compared to 16.5 percent for the same month a year ago.

“It’s really a tough situation in itself,” said Poll, who added that some less-diversified farms near Holland are faring worse than his operation, with as much as 20 percent of their crops going unplanted. 

“We feel very blessed because we still got 90-some percent of it in,” he said. “There’s never two years alike and you have to learn to take what the good Lord gives you. Some years you’re really blessed and some you learn to live with a little less.” 

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