From wet spring to early snowfall, farmers have seen it all this year

WINCHESTER – It’s been more than 25 years since farmers have seen a harvest, and a growing season, like the one offered this year.

Far from the fire and brimstone offered by the horned landlord downstairs, the current conditions in the fields are wet, frozen and sloppy. Every day is a struggle for farmers to get another few acres of highly valuable crop out of the soup and into the dryer.

The problems began with a foul spring when wet weather and cool temperatures left many farmers with very short planting windows. That problem grew worse with long droughts in some areas during the most crucial growing weeks. The late start meant the harvest also began behind schedule and then the recent interruption in propane supply added further headaches. It has been a hurry up and wait scenario mixed in with frantic harvest runs in the quickly disappearing good weather days. It has meant long line-ups at elevators.

Brent Vanden Bosch and his team at Vanden Bosch Elevators are running at full drying capacity, but much like the farmers they serve, their own planting season began late.

“That first run it just wasn’t quite dry enough. We held off so we started switching heat units in our corn. We just started dropping to shorter day corn. Anyone that did that, their moisture levels are in the respectable range. The guys that did not change their heat units, they’re in the 30-plus moisture range,” he said.

A massive pile of corn sits in front of Rutters Elevators near Chesterville. This year has been dubbed the harvest from hell with more than 60 per cent of the corn harvest still standing and moisture levels near 30 per cent. A resolution to the CN Rail strike Tues., Nov. 26 slightly alleviated the pressure, but more rain and snow in the forecast will extend the harvest well into December.

Michael Aube, president and grain merchandiser at Rutters Elevators, corroborated those numbers saying that some farmers seeing levels near 31 per cent “have given up on combining that for a while.” He added that those who weren’t able or willing to switch to lower heat unit corn are left with a crop that simply hasn’t matured enough.

Corn moisture levels that high mean a lower grade, extra drying costs and for some farmers, could result in some heavy financial losses, many of which can’t afford it.

“There’s such a large group of farmers that took on a lot of debt lately and tried to expand and reach maximum potential of income through higher heat units and this year it’s costing them. Mother Nature got the best of them this year,” said Aube adding that this year was a perfect storm of bad weather and bad timing.

“This year the men and the boys all got caught. It just depends on their financial stability on what the outcome is going to be,” he said.

To give this harvest some perspective, Vanden Bosch pointed out that they can’t recall ever harvesting soybeans after November 1st and they finished their corn harvest in the middle of November last year.

“We began our corn harvest 360 days after we finished last year. We were almost a year from the end of harvest to beginning of harvest this year on corn,” said Vanden Bosch. “Usually we get a run in September of about a week [for beans], but nobody started until the end of October. We got about four days [of good weather] then and then it became one or two days a week after that. That’s just killed us.”

He did add that while things aren’t great this year, area farmers were saved from the worst of the weather this summer. Those north of Vernon were reporting some corn varieties between 79 and 105 bushels per acre. South of Williamsburg, the conditions were just as dry.

The yield on corn this year has come in at close to average, but as Aube indicated, “they’re not below average for the growing season we had.”

Those with a bit of experience and that took a continuous cautious approach benefit in years as trying as 2019.

“I’ve got a lot of farmers in the area who have been conservative on their heat units and maybe didn’t always reach for top potential on the yield side, but being conservative has paid off ten-fold this year. The quality that’s coming in from those farmers is just exceptional,” said Aube.

To find a year as trying as this, one would have to go back 27 years.

“The only other year that was this bad for test weight, or actually still worse was the fall of ’92,” said Vanden Bosch. “It’s still worse than this year I think because we’re still getting some respectable corn.”

The conditions may be comparable but the farming industry has changed since then. Corn is a high-pressure commodity.

“There were less people depending on corn as cash revenue. It was more just for dairy farming and feed and now it’s the bulk of the cash receipts,” said Aube.

With a year like this, good crop insurance management and risk management pays off. Aube compared the lessons learned this year to those dished out to Renfrew County farmers in 2013.

“Managing your crop insurance is key. It is a portfolio you build. In a given year where you need to retrieve your funds, that’s what keeps you alive,” he said. “[Farmers in Renfrew County] have minimized their risk by lowering their heat units and they’re coming out ahead this year.”

With more than 60 per cent of the corn harvest still in the field there letting the crop stand for the winter may be the only option for some.

“It’s hard for certain people. It’s not a common practice,” said Aube. “We saw it up in the Renfrew where they experienced these types of problems and they left it out in the fields. It’s not a common practice in Eastern Ontario, but it may have to be this year.”

The corn harvest is behind the proverbial eight-ball, but the soybean crop is lingering around like a delinquent teenager.

The late harvest also a result of the wet, cool spring and an early snowfall that stuck around for several weeks has left between 15 and 30 per cent of the crop still in the field.

Moisture levels have been between 13 and 19 per cent, but yields have come in slightly above average.

As with corn, moisture level has been a concern with Vanden Bosch reporting that 60 per cent of the harvest was dried compared to only 20 per cent in a good year. With so much of the soybean crop still to come and the corn harvest happening simultaneously, some may be forced to let the beans stand for now.

“The only time you lose your beans is if you get into April and it’s starting to warm up. They’re going to go moldy on you,” said Vanden Bosch.

Vanden Bosch Elevators in Chesterville reported soybean moisture levels between 13 and 19 per cent. Brent Vanden Bosch, who runs the farm operation, couldn’t recall harvesting beans after November 1st. This harvest has been the most challenging since 1992.

Although it’s hoped the recent warm weather will have taken all the snow off the field and that the snow will stay away long enough to play catch up. With cooler temperatures and snow forecast for the weekend that window may be closing for good.

The most frustrating element of the harvest from hell was the recent CN Rail strike, which reached a resolution the morning of Tues., Nov. 26.

The strike meant that propane supplies, which are primarily transported by rail, would be limited and residential delivery would receive priority. That left some area elevators and farmers with empty bins, a crop in the field and no way to dry it.

The announcement that Teamsters and Canadian National (CN) have reached a tentative agreement that will see 3,000 conductors, trainpersons and yard workers back to work at 6 am Wed., Nov. 27 couldn’t come at a better time.

According to Chris Guy, co-owner of Guy Fuels in Winchester, prices have gone up more than 10 cents per litre in the past week. Much like other local suppliers, Guy informed farm customers that they would no longer be supplying propane for drying bins.

Many might think that there is plenty of propane but to put it in perspective, the Guy Fuels tank holds 145,000 litres of propane and in peak season it will last a total of two days. Given that average dryers consume 2,500 to 6,000 litres per day with larger operations tripling that consumption rate and that temperatures start to drop at this time of year, it’s easy to see that a predictable price bump was on the horizon.

Guy maintains that “we’re in pretty good shape for the next week or two” with their supply and once the strike is settled and the backlog is cleared, prices will return to normal as they did in 2013.

The terms of the deal still need to be ratified by teamster members over the next few months, but having propane available again will do much to ease the stress of a season like no other.

Although 1992 was not all that long ago, much has changed in farming since then. A new generation of farmers has taken over and some painful lessons learned in the past may have been forgotten.

“We just got out of touch,” said Aube. “The next generation forgot about ‘92.”

Long line-ups at P&H Elevators in Winchester were the order of the day as high-moisture corn created a backlog in the drying process. Schoch Photos