Foot of snow caps off especially wet year for farmers

Katherine Grandstrand

When Frederick-area farmer Don Nickelson booked a post- Thanksgiving Disney World vacation for his family, he was all but certain harvest would be complete.

“Normally, kind of the first week or two of November we’re supposed to be done,” Nickelson said.

But instead, waiting in line for Splash Mountain in Florida, he knew there was still corn sitting in snow, waiting to be harvested back in South Dakota.

“Maybe a fourth of my acres are still unharvested,” Nickelson said. “Sounds like we got a foot of snow, but hopefully it’s melted down a touch.”

Nickelson’s acres are just some of thousands in the state that still have crops waiting to be harvested. He made sure his soybeans were out of the field before the seasons changed.

“The closer to the ground the seed lays, the harder it is,” said Doug Sombke, a Conde-area farmer and president of the South Dakota Farmers Union. “Beans are the worst.

“This is definitely the latest (harvest) that I can ever remember in my life,” Sombke said. “This has been very unprecedented, that’s for sure.”

Many farmers have winter jobs, and having to be in the field also affects that work, Sombke added.

As of Dec. 2, 80% of the corn in South Dakota had been harvested, compared to 94% last year and 98% for the five-year average, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ninety percent of sorghum was harvested, compared to a 98% five-year average, and 71% of planted sunflowers have been harvested, compared to a 94% five-year average.

As of Nov. 18, 95% of soybeans were harvested, compared to 99% for the five-year average, according to USDA data.

Even with the snow, Nickelson said he thought he would be able to harvest his corn upon his return.

“I kind of got them done just before it stormed, before we got wet again,” Nickelson said. “With corn, the ears are generally high enough off the ground, as long as you can drive through the snow, you generally can get the corn.”

It’s safe to say 2019 has been a hard year for farmers — planting season started out wet and it never really dried out.

“The heavens opened up and it rained, rained and rained. No one ever shut off the tap,” said Groton-area farmer Chad Johnson in a news release from South Dakota Farmer’s Union.

He still had 450 acres of corn to harvest at the beginning of last week, according to the news release, with more than a foot of melting snow to contend with on top of wet soil.

“What we need is some poor man’s concrete,” Johnson said in the release. “If the snow melts and the ground freezes just enough, we can get this harvest wrapped up. I’m so over 2019. It’s been one heck of a year for our family and friends.”

More than 4 million acres in South Dakota went unplanted in 2019, according to data from USDA. This was the most of any state.

It wasn’t that long ago that drought was the biggest concern for farmers.

“Throughout the growing season I heard farmers say they would rather have a drought than a flood because a flood does more damage to the land and equipment,” said Laura Edwards, state climatologist, in the Farmer’s Union release. “Flooding creates so much more work and managing a farm through an excessively wet year requires much more labor.”

With 125 years of data, 2019 has been the wettest on record, according to Edwards.

“Farmers are doing a good job adapting to these type of changes. Their farming techniques have changed a lot,” Sombke said.

But the seemingly sudden switch from too dry to too wet is something that’s even harder to deal with, he added.

“You take two steps backwards and one forward — that’s kind of how it’s been,” Sombke said.

In previous years, there was still a market for the crops that did make it out of the ground, Sombke said.

“Now we’ve got nothing,” Sombke said. “We’ve got poor-quality grain, we’ve got poor soil conditions, we’ve got no price and they’re back down to accepting the welfare checks from the government. It is really wearing on them, that’s what I hear.”

Farmers are depending on crop insurance payouts, which should help keep the local economy stable, Sombke said.

“If it wasn’t for crop insurance, I can tell you right now we’d have some banks that would be in trouble. We’d have a lot more farmers in trouble,” Sombke said.

But those that don’t get their crops out of the field can’t make a claim, he said.

But, through all of this, Sombke said he hopes farmers continue to use creativity and determination to keep agriculture in the state.

“I try to not concentrate on the negative. I try to look to see where we can go for a positive,” Sombke said. “What do we have to look to address these issues? Maybe we need to start looking at how we do things differently, and not just what we farm, but how we farm.”

Rows of unharvested corn sit in a snow-covered field north of Aberdeen on Dec. 4. American News file photo