Farmers swamped by record rains

An area field with standing water, a common sight this month.

SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — Historic rainfall across Michigan has many local farmers grappling with crop and revenue losses, and state and federal agencies are trying to help.

The state was hit with 37.9 inches of rain between May 1, 2018, and April 30, 2019 — the third wettest year in state history. As of June 9, farmers have had only 31/2 days of “proper conditions” for field work, according to the governor’s office.

“I was a farmer all my life, until two years ago, and I haven’t seen anything like this rain,” said Glenn Tobey, 90, of Venice Township. “It is very rough. I was talking to a guy who has only been able to get a little corn in. Some people don’t have anything planted yet.”

The effect on local farms has varied, depending partly on their locations and drainage systems. Married couple Shelly and Nathan Allen said so far they’ve been able to plant only a fraction of the hundreds of acres they farm in Fairfield and Caledonia townships.

“There’s been so much rain, we went kayaking in our field,” Nathan Allen said. “Luckily, we have crop insurance. That will pay for some things, but we’re going to have to dip into savings.”

The Allens are far from alone.

Across the state, crops are significantly underplanted, with only 63 percent to 88 percent of the acreage dedicated to corn planted this year. Only 43 percent of soybeans have been planted, state officials say.

Thursday, Brian Washburn, who owns Washburn Farms in Elsie with wife Michelle Washburn, announced on the farm’s Facebook page that, “after more inches of rain, we are calling it quits on corn planting. Hundreds of acres will be left bare.”

In response to attempts to reassure them that they’ve got crop insurance and things could be worse, the couple said some people really don’t understand the devastation.

“Insurance will not cover all the seed and fertilizer we have bought,” the Washburns wrote. “Insurance will not cover land payments or land rent. Insurance doesn’t pay for employees. It probably will be an easy harvest, but it won’t be an easy summer.

“Farmers can’t just leave that land bare. They will have to spray it, to keep the weeds under control. They will have to till the ground to keep the weeds under control. Or they will have to plant some sort of a crop on the land to, you guessed it, control the weeds,” the post continued.”And it could be worse. But anyway you cut it…we will be in the negative this year. In a big way. Next paycheck…fall 2020.”

As some farmers begin to believe they have nowhere to turn, the state of Michigan and federal governments are reaching out to help.

Michigan State University Extension, for one, has announced its statewide network of agricultural educators who are tracking growing conditions, talking with farmers and writing articles about how they can adjust to inhospitable conditions and tough choices. They are recording podcasts and offering webinars. Farmers can submit questions online and receive responses from experts.

“What I’m seeing and hearing from farmers is that this situation is unprecedented in their lifetimes,” said Phil Kaatz, MSU Extension field crops educator for the region that includes Shiawassee County. “This is something that’s unique and different. It’s tough to quantify, but — based on how they’ve set themselves for the year — some farms will be fine, some will break even and, for some, this is the last straw that will put them out of business.”

MSU Extension is linking farmers with delayed planting resources on its website at canr.msu.edu/agriculture/delayed-planting-resources.

“Resources are out there, and we’re trying to provide as many as we can,” Kaatz said, adding his advice that farmers work close with their lenders in a timely manner.

In addition, the state Legislature is close to adding $15 million to a low-interest loan program to help farmers with crop losses, it was reported Friday.

Allen said he is considering the pros and cons of taking out a low-interest loan. He believes it might be difficult to repay, given the low crop prices he predicts next summer will bring.

“I’ve never been in a situation like this, so I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said.

Thursday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a measure to help farmers stem losses. The USDA said it will allow farmers to plant hay or graze cover crops planted on acreage they are claiming crop insurance on Sept. 1, moving the official date from Nov. 1. That allows farmers to grow crops for silage, haylage or baleage on currently unplanted land and remain eligible for full reimbursement of their crop insurance plan.

Stephanie Schafer, the Michigan Farm Bureau director of the region covering Shiawassee County, is hosting a meeting at her farm on June 25. The purpose is to discuss the weather and crop insurance with fellow farmers, and describe resources available to them, Brandi Harrison of the Shiawassee County Farm Bureau said.

As of Wednesday, 64 out of Michigan’s 83 counties had independently requested disaster designations from the USDA this year.

The Allens said they plan to attend the meeting, despite knowing there are no quick fixes. Last year, they dealt with drought; this year, it’s unrelenting rainfall. That’s the farming life, they said.

“Farming’s a challenge,” Nathan Allen said. “If it wasn’t, everybody would do it.”

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