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Wasted farmland: Missouri lost fewer acres to spring storms, floods in 2020

Camille McManus
Jeff Jorgenson in May 2019 looks over a partially flooded field he farms near Shenandoah, Iowa. A record 19.6 million acres went unplanted last year because of weather, a number that has decreased significantly this year.

Floods and heavy rainfall prevented U.S. farmers from planting a record 19.6 million acres of crops last year. This spring, growers in most states got a break.

Still, new numbers the U.S. Department of Agriculture released this week show that about 9.3 million acres in the nation's crop insurance program, mostly corn and soybeans, went unplanted this year. That's the third most acres since the department began keeping records in 2007.

Unlike in 2019, when the biggest damage was spread through a dozen Midwestern states, three states — North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas — accounted for about half the unplanted acres this year.

In Missouri, weather prevented farmers from planting 453,352 acres this year, down 67.4% from 2019. That number includes 173,754 acres of corn and 151,477 acres of wheat.

Hardest hit this year was Barton County, where 34,794 acres went unplanted, 12.47% of the acres there.

Andy Clay was among the farmers who had a much better spring this year.

Clay, a 7th-generation farmer from Jamestown in central Missouri’s Moniteau County lost about 2,000 acres — half of his row crops — last year because of flooding from the Missouri River. This year, he’s left just 36 acres unplanted.

This year’s crops were also in better shape as August began than in 2019. At this time last year, Missouri farmers were rating only 39 percent of corn crops and 47 percent of soybean crops as good or excellent in the National Agriculture Statistics Service weekly reports.

This year, farmers report 75 percent of the corn crop and 74 percent of the soybean crop as good or excellent. Corn yields are forecast to be up 20 bushels per acre, to 175, and soybeans are expected to produce 53 bushels per acre, up seven from 2019.

The downside is that abundant crops will lower prices. Missouri farmers are receiving less, 56 cents a bushel less for their corn and 38 cents a bushel less for wheat in June than in June 2019, according to NASS reports. Soybeans are bringing marginally more than in 2019.

Nationwide, weather hit corn, soybean and wheat fields the most this year, the same crops most affected in 2019.

Although many states saw an overall improvement in crop yield this year, a few states actually had more acres go unplanted due to weather than last year. The 2.7 million acres North Dakota farmers reported they were uable to plant is about three times what they reported last year.

That jump in unplanted acres can be attributed to a snowy winter and heavy rainfall in the spring that delayed harvesting and planting crops, said Pete Hanebutt, director of public policy for the North Dakota Farm Bureau.

“This is a business that is weather-dependent, and sometimes the weather works against you,” he said.

In Ohio, more than 15% of the state's farmland — nearly 1.5 million acres — went unplanted in 2019, the highest percentage of any state. This year, better weather meant famers there left many fewer acres unplanted.

“We had significant periods of dry, and almost perfect weather, to get these crops in during the spring,” said Ben Brown, an assistant professor of agricultural risk management at Ohio State University. “April and May we were really moving along well in terms of planting progress, especially in the northwest part of the state where we had significant prevent-plant acreage the year before.”

Doug Goyings, a farmer in northwest Ohio, agreed that it had been a much easier year for his area. Last year, farmers couldn't plant nearly a third of of the farmland in Paulding County, where Goyings farms. But this year, they reported no unplanted acres there.

Even though his crops are doing well so far this year, Goyings said it’s been a little dry in his area recently. He said a few of his crops need rain soon to keep them growing.

“August rains are very important for soybeans, and that’s what we’re needing real bad right now.”

Other parts of the state, however, had the opposite problem, Brown said. In western and southern Ohio, there were areas that rained through the spring and made it harder to plant.

Despite the overall improvement in crop yield this year, many farms are still recovering from last year’s revenue loss, said Scott VanderWal, president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau. Many farms could still be below the break-even point this year.

“That’s something that takes a long time to heal up from,” he said.

Weather prevented South Dakota farmers from planting nearly 4 million acres in 2019, the most of any state. The 1.2 million acres that couldn't be planted this year still made South Dakota the second hardest-hit state in the country.

Even though more farmers were able to plant their crops this year, they may have run into other problems because of COVID-19. VanderWal said markets have gone flat since the pandemic began.

“People were looking for a chance to make a little money and then all of the sudden the coronavirus came along,” he said. “The markets went absolutely backwards and since then haven’t recovered yet.”

“It’s just like any other industry,” Clay said, “there’s a lot of unknowns there.”

Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune contributed to this report.