Farmers off to slow start planting corn crop

Most years about this time, northern Illinois farmer Monty Whipple, like so many Midwest growers, would be riding high in his monstrous planter, kicking up dust while sowing corn in hundreds of acres. But this spring has kept him sidelined, and he's anything but alone.

Spring planting across much of the nation's Corn Belt is sputtering, foiled by rainy and chilly conditions that in broad stretches have left the ground either too soggy or too cold for effective seeding.

As of Sunday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says, just 3 percent of the U.S. corn crop was sown, half the dismal pace of last year, when one of the wettest springs on record got farmers in many states off to the slowest start in decades.

In Illinois, just 1 percent of this year's corn has been planted — one-tenth of the average pace of the previous five years. Farmers in other key corn-producing states — Iowa, Nebraska and Indiana — were equally idle, the USDA says. Missouri has 9 percent of its crop in the field, down from 16 percent this time a year ago.

Still, Whipple and other growers in Illinois and Missouri aren't sounding alarms, noting that today's bigger, more efficient planting machines can make up for lost time. Such was the case last year, when more than 40 percent of Illinois' corn crop got planted in just one week in mid-May. The USDA says corn sowing traditionally begins about this time, with that task typically in full swing from April 21 through May 23.

And the agency notes that even with last year's frustratingly slow start to planting, U.S. farmers still reaped a record 13.9 billion bushels of corn and the third-biggest soybean crop on record.

"There's really not any need to be concerned," Illinois Farm Bureau spokesman John Hawkins said.

At least not yet, as Whipple waits for spring to stop acting like winter. With a fresh batch of snow on his roughly 800 acres of farmland near Utica in LaSalle County, he spent Tuesday hauling stored grain to a barge and felt productive.

"I can't be in the field, so this is a good job to get done while waiting," he said, though he admitted he's "starting to get a little frustrated." He guessed it will be another week before he can begin planting corn. "We just haven't had that week or two of good weather, and there's a lot of work to be done."

But he said he has resisted the urge to rush in a crop when the soil is marginal, saying "you only get one shot at this."

Near Missouri's Warrenton, west of St. Louis, Keith Witt said only one or two local farmers have any corn planted — for bragging rights, if anything. But with 3,500 acres soaked by six inches of rain over the past 10 days or so, Witt guesses he'll have to wait until the end of next week to start planting.

Expectations of more rain within days soured any hope of getting in the fields now to plant half of his acreage with corn, then the other half later with beans.

"It's hard to find something to do, realizing you want to be out there and getting it done but can't," said Witt, a former Missouri Corn Growers Association president. "But we still have plenty of time. Last year (with the delayed sowing), we planted everything in four days. So what difference does it make?"

Back in central Illinois, near Auburn, Garry Niemeyer feels lucky. Simply to test his equipment, the 65-year-old farmer has sown 100 of the roughly 1,200 acres he'll devote to corn this year.

The reason: His turf has been relatively dry, though that may change with the considerable chance for rain by Friday.

"I know there's nervous tension, but you have to go with the weather cards you're dealt," he said.

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