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Southland farmers trying to recover from spring rains

So many different kinds discs are used fields. | ErGallagher~For Sun-Times Media

So many different kinds of discs are used in fields. | Erin Gallagher~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 26, 2014 6:42AM



While the rest of America enjoys a leisurely holiday weekend, farmers across the Southland are rushing to get planted — and in some cases, replanted.

Only harvest will tell what effect this year’s bizarre weather has had on local crops. Still, area growers are already feeling the economic squeeze.

Jeff Haas farms primarily in Homer Township. He calls May’s early downpours “heart wrenching.”

On May 8, he was able to get corn planted in some of his fields, which was ideal timing. That night, all luck was washed out by 2 inches of rain, soon followed by another 3 inches.

“I know we’ve got a lot of replants to do because a lot of that (already planted) was under water and there was just no way a lot of that was going to live through that (rain),” Haas said.

Before heavy machinery, like planters or sprayers, can get “in the fields,” as farmers say, the ground has to be sufficiently dry. Otherwise, tires leave tracks, called compaction, which stunts root growth and ultimately hurts yield. This 5-inch rain set back farmers two weeks already, and maybe more.

With corn seed costing in the neighborhood of $150 an acre, the real downside, Haas said, is the lost yield potential. Early May was optimum planting time, which gives corn enough days to maximize potential. Planting late could mean a 15 to 20 percent yield loss.

With so many moving variables in agriculture economics, such as the price of corn, or the amount of bushels per acre, in theory, the two-week delay could mean a $250,000 to $300,000 loss to a family that farms 2,000 acres.

“We’ll know at harvest,” said Ed Mundt, who farms along Stuenkle Road in Frankfort along with his brother, Alan. “But looking at the calendar, it definitely affected us,” Alan Mundt said.

Spring’s planting season involves a series of steps, more than just one pass of a tractor through a field with seed. Depending who you talk to, high yield involves treatments, including discing and spraying — all of which require heavy machinery.

While the rest of us enjoyed long overdue, warm, sunny days recently, farmers waited because the ground is too wet.

“We tried it yesterday but we were leaving tracks,” said Alan Mundt on Thursday. “You can’t push it or you’ll wreck it.”

That may mean traffic delays as farm equipment attempts to navigate traffic over the holiday. As much of the Southland has developed around farmland, accessing fields increasingly is restricted. Many have to travel more popular routes, like it or not. Farmers, like the Mundts, say they prefer moving machines on the back roads and avoid rush hour. Still, when Mother Nature says it’s “go time,” the rest of the drivers are going to have to wait.

“We actually try to move off hours because of the traffic,” Alan Mundt said.

“You often don’t have a choice because you can’t turn off the planters for hours,” Ed Mundt added.

While most farmers are in a hurry to get in the fields, large equipment is slow moving. Traffic and rough roads are extremely dangerous to farmers. Ed Mundt said the potholes along Route 45 can be life threatening if a machine ends up in a ditch. Farm equipment does not have suspension, so it is especially dangerous when drivers doing 60 mph come up behind a farmer driving 10 mph.

Because some fields already were planted, the storms forced the top layer of dirt to harden and crust over. In order to save the field, many had to go back over what was planted with a rotary hoe, a tool that breaks the crust in order for corn to emerge.

“We’re trying to save (the plants),” Alan Mundt said. “I think they’ll be some corn replanted. We’ve been trying not to do that, it’s too expensive.”

Much of the acreage the Mundts have been farming they’ve worked for 20 or 30 years, Alan Mundt said. That’s not uncommon in the agriculture industry. Farmers know their land and are used to risk. Just ask the Mundts, who were among those hit by last fall’s tornado. The challenges this year they’ve seen before.

“Sometimes you’re the windshield,” Haas said. “Sometimes you’re the bug.”



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