Despite the drought that parched much of the rest of the country, 2012 is shaping up as a pleasant surprise for many Minnesota farmers who are expected to harvest record corn and sugarbeet crops.
They report decent corn and soybean yields even in southern counties that are deep in drought. Farmers say the combination of good spring rain and some timely precipitation in July and August saved their crops. And they're profiting from high prices caused by the drought's ravages in states like Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois and Indiana.
"It went better than we thought it would — by a long ways — that's for sure," southwestern Minnesota corn and soybean farmer Scott Johnson said with a laugh.
Minnesota farmers expect to harvest a record 1.39 billion bushels of corn, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's estimates released Thursday. That's up 15 percent from 2011, which was hampered by a cold, wet spring and early frost. That would beat the state record of 1.29 billion bushels in 2010.
The USDA projects the state's average corn yield will be 168 bushels per acre, which would 12 bushels per acre better than last year but below the record 177 bushels per acre of two years ago.
Minnesota soybean production is forecast at 300 million bushels, up 9 percent, with an average yield of 43 bushels per acre, up four bushels from last year. Those aren't records, but the state's sugarbeet production is expected to hit a record 12.8 million tons, surpassing the 11.9 million tons of 2006.
"When all is said and done, for most farmers it will range from average to above average to reductions of 10 to 30 percent," predicted Kent Thiesse, a farm management analyst and vice president with MinnStar Bank in Lake Crystal.
The early start to planting, the warm growing season and drought-resistant hybrids helped, said Doug Holen, a University of Minnesota Extension educator from Morris.
"I don't want to paint a rosy picture for everybody because there were some really harsh yields out there ... but overall the farmers are pretty happy. And they're also happy because most of them are done," said Jodi DeJong-Hughes, an Extension educator from Willmar.
Johnson is among the happy. He and his family farm about 3,000 acres north of Jackson. Their corn yields were in the 190-bushel range, with yields of 52 to 53 bushels for soybeans. He said they got more rain than most people in his area, but it helps that their land is mostly "just nice flat back earth." Sandier soils didn't fare as well.
Mark Pietz, who farms about 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Lakefield, said he expected to wrap up his harvest Friday, the earliest he's ever finished. His corn yields ranged from 145 bushels to 202; his soybeans, 40 to 52 bushels.
"My neighboring farmers seem very happy — almost as much as myself," Pietz said. "Life isn't ever purely stress free, but it's been pretty close this fall for this area."
Page 2 of 2 - Bill Gordon's results show how variable the results have been.
Corn yields on his fields west of Worthington ranged from 99 to 170 bushels and averaged 140 to 150, he said, pretty good for "absolutely no rain whatsoever." But yields on his lands east of the city reached as high as 195 bushels thanks to an inch of rain there in July. His soybeans were a shade below normal thanks to 2.5 inches in August.
As a grain farmer, Gordon likes high prices, but as an incoming board member of the American Soybean Association he also sees a bigger picture — the high prices are hurting the cattle, pork and poultry producers that are the primary customers for their beans.
And there are other dust clouds on the horizon. While the forecast calls for maybe an inch of rain Saturday, Minnesota's farmers will need much more by next spring.
"Let 'er rain," Johnson said.