A little more than a month ago now, I recall I was tooling about the countryside north of Ottawa when I got the distinct feeling that something was off. Eventually I realized it was that many of the fields had not yet been planted. That I had developed an expectation of seeing green shoots rising from the soil by the end of May made me happy in a way — makes me feel like a proper local in these parts — but I of course felt apprehensive on the part of farmers.
According to the USDA’s July 1 Illinois Crop Progress report, 95% of corn has been planted, as well as 87% of soybeans. That’s a little behind where farmers usually are at this point in the year; I think it speaks to their ability to respond to challenges that they managed to catch up so quickly after an extraordinarily wet spring. La Salle County Farm Bureau President David Isermann went on record with local mediaat the end of May, when just 20% of Illinois crops were in the ground, saying that this past spring in the Illinois Valley was perhaps the worst in living memory for farmers. But things seem to have gotten at least mostly back on track in the last month.
Nevertheless, there is cause for concern. Dan Koster, a grain elevator operator in Sterling, told Reuters he only expected 60% to 75% of the usual volume this year and that he would probably struggle to find a way to break even. Likewise, many of the services peripheral to farming will be affected by this year’s downturn — delays in seed shipments earlier this year helped cause a 28% slump in profits for chemical giant DowDuPont, which owns many of the major US seed producers. David Oppedahl, writing in the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank’s May 2019 AgLetter, notes a “gradual decay in agricultural credit conditions” in the recent past. Although Oppedahl reports that midwestern farms are, for the time being, reasonably stable from a financial point-of-view, he concludes that given “generally low commodity prices and weather disruptions … 2019 could end up being quite a challenging year.”
Discussing these matters with friends, our brows were similarly furrowed. One showed me a picture of hail-damaged corn on his father’s farm in Iowa. And as we stood there, worrying about the weather, I found myself wondering how things might be different. I’ve joked before that we ought to start learning rice farming in the Illinois Valley, but this time I thought, what if it wasn’t all corn and soybeans in those fields? What would that look like?
The funny thing is it’s a little hard to imagine. You could, in theory, move towards more livestock, but that would require rebuilding infrastructure that’s been slowly migrating west to Nebraska and other states over the course of decades. And there are organizations, such as the Savanna Institute, that research possible alternatives to the current paradigm. But what it would be like not to drive through a labyrinth of corn and beans in late September seems distant to me.
And yet I know plenty of people who can remember farming out here before it was all corn and beans. Farming sometimes seems more like a tradition than a business, but like any modern industry, it’s always changing, even, I suppose, when it’s hard to see how.
SAMUEL BARBOURálives in Ottawa and teaches economics to community college students. He can be reached at email@example.com.