Virgil Schmitt, a Muscatine County farmer and an agronomist for the Iowa State University Extension, is contemplating the unthinkable to a farmer: It may not be financially viable for him to plant a crop this year.
The Trump administration announced a $16 billion aid package announced Thursday to aid farmers facing low commodity prices due to a tariff war with China, as well as over-production home and weather conditions that have kept some farmers out of the fields this spring. But whatever Schmitt may get may not be enough to justify planting a crop this year, given the cost of inputs that include fertilizer, seeds and the cost of fuel to distribute both.
He, and many other Quad-City area farmers, are contemplating leaving their fields idle and taking a prevented planting payment from their insurance.
“My dad started farming in 1934 and he always got a crop in every year,” Schmitt said. “I’ve always gotten a crop in every year. And the idea that I may not put in a crop this year from an emotional standpoint is hard to contemplate. At the same time, I realize this may be a first. “
There is a lot to consider before Schmitt makes any final decision, including how the U.S. Department of Agriculture's current aid package will pay out.
But it’s not just Schmitt considering the prevented planting option. In the meetings and webinars he has attended or helped to conduct there are hundreds of farmers mulling over the same questions.
There remain a lot of unknowns about how the government payments will be made, what happens if market conditions change, and even if one commodity will be given weight over another, such as with the last aid package that tilted toward soybeans.
“The devil is in the details,” Schmitt said. “Once those details are released everything could change.
“We could end up with a lot of acreage sitting idle,” he said. “Or we could have people ready to go and plant. But it doesn’t look like anyone is going to turn a wheel for at least a week, given the weather conditions.”
In conversations with other farmers, Schmitt said he has heard time and again, “Who would have thought the markets would be screwed up this bad and the weather screwed up this bad all at the same time?”
Charles Brown, a farm management specialist for the Iowa State Extension in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and who is a farmer himself, has planted nothing at this time. Being in southern Iowa gives him a bit more time to make a decision. According to the Iowa Crop Progress Report issued May 19, farmers in Iowa had planted 70% of their corn, and 27% of their soybeans. In southeast Iowa, farmers there had 61% of their corn planted and 21% of their soybeans in the ground.
Then the weather turned.
“There are a lot of guys in my area that have not turned a wheel in a field in almost a month,” Brown said.
A number of farmers in his area got work done in April and put a lot of corn into the ground and some beans, he said. “Since then, it’s been hit or miss.”
But to plant or not to plant will be an individual decision by the farmer who has to sit down and try to figure out.
“There are just so many unknowns right now,” Brown said. “We’ll see how it goes in the next couple of weeks as we get more details of the aid package.”
Taylor Ridge, Illinois, farmer Tom Mueller got his corn planted last week. Each time he’s tried to plant soybeans it has rained.
Mueller is lucky to have his corn crop in.
“I planted corn last week,” Mueller said. “The calendar said it was time to go no matter what.”
But most of the rest of Illinois’ farmers are not so lucky. As of May 19, Illinois farmers had planted only 24% of their corn and 9% of their soybeans. Last year at this time, Illinois farmer had 95% of their corn in the ground and 79% of their soybeans planted.
“We’ve had it tough in Illinois,” he said.
“You can plant beans until the middle of June and there will still be a good crop there,” Mueller said. This season he is planting two-thirds of his acreage in corn and one-third in soybeans.
But that’s if he can get his beans in the ground. He would rather plant the beans than not because payouts for fallow soybean fields aren't as lucrative as corn payouts, he said.
“But in southern Illinois, I don’t know that they’ll get any corn into the ground by June 6,” Mueller said. “They’re fortunate to have this thing now with the prevented plant as they’ll be able to cover some of their costs.”
The aid package came none too soon, Schmitt said. But the USDA needs to get the details out to farmers fast so the farmers can make intelligent decisions.
“Farmers are farmers because they love to grow food to feed the world,” Schmitt said. “They want to get out and plant. No one ever dreamed this scenario would ever occur where the weather is horrible in the midst of a trade war.
“We’ve been telling farmers that their decision should not be made on emotion, but to do what makes the most economic sense,” he said. “If that means prevented-plant, then at least they’ll be around to grow food for another year.
“That a farmer would not plant is something that’s totally foreign,” Schmitt said. “Of course, Mother Nature may end up having the final say."