An exceptionally rainy spring and a cold autumn have made farming particularly challenging in Illinois this year, keeping tractors and combines busy throughout November and delaying the harvest for corn and soybeans. Despite the obstacles, however, farmers have recovered enough to harvest most of their crops, with 88% of the state's corn and 95% of soybeans harvested on the eve of Thanksgiving, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"It's not as bad as we thought it might be," said Krista Lisser, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Agriculture. "Still, the weather has not been kind to farmers this year. It's been blow after blow after blow."
Historic spring rains and continual precipitation through the fall delayed the corn harvest significantly. At this time a year ago, 100% of the state's corn had been harvested. The five-year average for the final week of November is 99%. The soybean harvest is about 5% behind average, according to USDA statistics.
"Let's just say, it hasn't exactly been fun this year," said Brandon Walter, a farmer from Harvard in McHenry County. "It's just like anything, though, we'll make the best of it."
Indiana and Iowa have experienced similar corn and soybean harvest delays this year. In Indiana, 89% of corn and 94% of soybeans have been harvested, while in Iowa the numbers are 86% and 97%, respectively.
Wet fields and soggy crops have meant farmers and grain elevator operators have needed to dry the corn so it is usable for processing or feed, leading to a shortage of propane needed to power the high-powered fans and drying systems. After corn is harvested from fields, it is usually stored in grain elevators and silos. Wet corn can spoil after several days.
For Evan Hultine, a farmer in Bureau County near Interstate 80 about two hours southwest of Chicago, the delayed planting season meant late-growing corn has not had the chance to dry out this fall, especially since there have been few rain-free stretches. Hultine uses a drying system, powered by liquid propane, to reduce the moisture of the corn kernels he stores in giant grain bins.
"Starting so late really sets everything back," said Hultine, who decided to grow only corn this year because of concerns about how tariffs and the international trade wars would affect the soybean market. "It's been a struggle all year."
Hultine is about 85% done with his corn harvest. Normally, he said, the work is done weeks before Thanksgiving. But he was not able to start planting until May 31, finishing unusually late on June 11. He's hoping for one more stretch of dry weather so he can finish up in the next week or 10 days.
"My dad always said, 'If you're going to farm, you gotta love it. Because Mother Nature's going to be tough sometimes,'" Hultine said.
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Walter, who farms 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, has harvested most of his crops but continues to work in the field. The early November snow made harvesting soybeans difficult, he said, because any amount of snow prevents the combine from cutting the crops close to the ground.
"We're lucky we got most of the beans out," Walter said.
While most farmers have recovered throughout November to harvest their crops, some farmers may still be out in the fields throughout December, said Dan Volkers, manager of the McHenry County Farm Bureau. Volkers said "a good percentage" of farmers in the area still have crops yet to be harvested.
"Ideally, you want to be finished by the time the snow starts falling, or when it sticks, anyway," Volkers said. Some farmers may be trying to harvest crops until New Year's, he said, and he urged area motorists to be on the lookout for tractors and combines throughout the holiday season.
Most counties in Illinois, the nation's top soybean-producing state and No. 2 for corn production, have received significantly more rainfall this year than normal, according to the state climatologist office. The soggy spring weather damaged crops and left entire fields submerged for weeks, leaving 1.5 million acres unable to be planted.
For those who did plant, many fields of corn and soybeans were not planted until June, in turn pushing back the timeline for the fall harvest. At the beginning of October, only 13% of corn and 11%of soybeans had been harvested, according to the USDA.
The propane shortage has led the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to issue, and then extend, a regional emergency declaration that relaxes time-limit regulations on drivers who ship propane to farmers throughout the Midwest. The temporary rules are in place until Jan. 10, Lisser said.
Farmers are also reporting a shortage of hay because wet weather has made it difficult to dry and bale. Hay usually needs several days to dry out, which has been a challenge during the autumn because of snow and rain.
Walter, who usually sells hay to area horse farms and beef producers, said he has produced only a fraction of the usual amount this year. The demand for dry hay has pushed prices for small bales that usually fetch between $3 and $5 closer to $15, he said.
"This is just going to be a year to remember, but you don't really want to remember. You'd rather forget," Walter said. "It seems like this is becoming more of the norm. You hope it's not, though."
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