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What central Illinois farmers are up to, with planting just weeks away

In this Saturday, May 3, 2014 photo, central Illinois corn and soybean farmer Michael Mahoney plants seed corn in Ashland, Ill. A U.S. government report says the nation's corn growers should have banner production this year despite lesser acreage devoted to the grain. But corn prices later in the year may suffer a bit. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Seth Perlman
Farm activity really starts in late March and continues into April. Typical planting time is anytime the weather is good in April, and the goal is to really be wrapped up by early May.

Central Illinois farmers are weeks away from the start of planting season — and rising fuel costs look to be a challenge for this year's crop.

And it's not just fuel for tractors. Natural gas prices are up in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Crop nutrient products use a ton of natural gas as a raw ingredient.

Dr. Anna Herzberger is an agronomist with Bloomington-based ag cooperative Growmark. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

WGLT: What are farmers up to at this time of year, mid-March?

 Anna Herzberger
Dr. Anna Herzberger is an agronomist with Bloomington-based ag cooperative Growmark.

Herzberger: Besides watching March Madness, they're likely making deliveries of old crop grains to capitalize on the higher prices that we're seeing now as opposed to last year.

Most of the crop planning is done. But they may be getting their equipment ready to go to the field or taking deliveries of seed, as well as finalizing crop insurance, which is going to be especially important in a year like this, just to mitigate risk when the price of production as high.

There are all sorts of supply chain disruptions happening right now, up and down the economy. What are the biggest supply chain pressures facing farmers?

With respect to our crop nutrients, our fertilizer products, we are well positioned in the Midwest, albeit at historically high prices. The bigger concern is probably coastal markets, where they are more reliant on international suppliers. But fundamentally, there is an adequate fertilizer supply to meet the world demand. But as we've seen, geopolitics are kind of driving logistical issues that make it hard to match that supply with the demand.

But in respect to our crop protection products -- things like herbicides -- supply is low. And in a normal year, we may have warehouses stocked full of product. But in this climate, we are essentially moving to just-in-time deliveries, where product is going almost directly from the manufacturer to the area of application.

With low supply, with some of the geopolitical disruptions you're talking about, have we seen any big movement on prices leading into the 2022 season?

We've probably all noticed the rising fuel prices. Every vehicle that's on the road or in the field requires gas or diesel. So we are likely to see continued inflation.

From a crop nutrient lens, it's really geopolitics that are driving higher prices around the world. Many of our nitrogen products, ammonia, UAN and urea, they all require significant amounts of natural gas as a raw ingredient. So as energy prices increase, so do fertilizer prices.

More on the crop protection side, we do have big issues with glyphosate and glufosinate. Supply is limited due to many factors: trade disputes, logistical issues with shipping and transport, and even Hurricane Ida knocked out some supply.

So in general, farmers are rationing their use rates due to prices going up three to four times. And we're optimistic that this is going to be a short-term issue. And hopefully prices and supply levels will return to normal in 2023.

Farmers are increasingly using technology to do their jobs, including GPS and being very precise about how they farm their land. Where does all that data go?

Winter months are often spent working and analyzing through yield data in conjunction with other data layers to understand opportunities to improve to improve their operation. We like to correlate yield data with our soil data layers, as well as the crop hybrid placement and product testing, to allow a farmer to put this information together and make a plan for the upcoming year that hopefully is going to increase his bottom line.

How would you characterize the mood among farmers coming out of the 2021 crop?

Overall, yields were above trendline and prices have strengthened throughout the winter. So I would say the mood is good. There are a decent amount of concerns over supply issues as well as price volatility moving into the year, but in general, it feels positive.

When historically do Central Illinois farmers get back into the field? When should planting actually be starting in a best-case scenario?

Here in central Illinois, farm activity really starts in late March and continues into April. Typical planting time is anytime the weather is good in April, and the goal is to really be wrapped up by early May.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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