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In Harvey, farmers are playing the waiting game

HARVEY -- It's a sunny day in early May, the sort of day on which farmers in the Harvey area normally are going full bore in their fields.

Not this year. A cold spring has delayed planting, and farmers here don't expect to be in their fields until the middle of May at the earliest.

"It's going to take some time for the fields to dry out. We don't like waiting, but that's the way it is," said Daniel Reimche, a Harvey farmer.

In early May, some sloughs were still iced over and many fields were at least partially covered with water. Even fields free of standing water were too wet to work.

Reimche and others said they doubted spring's work will begin in earnest until this week. Substantial rains before then would delay planting even longer. And if heavy rains do fall in May, some fields may not get planted at all this year.

"Talk of PP (prevented planting) is increasing," said Travis Larson, agronomy manager at The Arthur Cos. grain elevator in Harvey.

Prevented planting, a provision of the federal crop insurance program, pays farmers when they're unable to plant their crop because of extreme weather.

The late spring also will influence the crops that farmers in the Harvey area plant.

May 25 is the final date on which farmers in that area can plant corn and still be eligible for federal crop insurance, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency, which administers the federal program.

May 31 is the final planting date for spring wheat, with June 10 the last day to plant soybeans.

Some farmers probably will plant less wheat and more soybeans, given soybeans' later final planting date, Larson says.

The big question is what farmers will do with fields on which they had planned to plant corn, potentially the most profitable crop available in the Harvey area.

"They want to maintain corn, if they can," Larson said.

He and others wonder if farmers will switch some fields from corn to soybeans or whether they'll plant corn after May 25.

Crops of all types generally fare worse when they're planted late. Doing so forces them to develop later than normal, exposing them to more summer heat than is ideal. That can hurt yields.

For instance, for each day wheat is planted after May 15 in North Dakota, yields can be expected to drop by 1.5 percent, according to the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Farmers can try to offset potential yield losses by planting more seed or earlier-maturing varieties.

Larson said he'll be working with farmers to minimize the downside from late planting.

'Typical' farm town

Farmers raise many crops in the Upper Midwest. Soil and climate, among other factors, dictate what producers grow.

Some farmers raise only corn and soybeans, others only wheat and livestock. A plethora of other crops, including barley, canola, durum, edible beans, oats, potatoes, sugar beets and sunflowers are grown, too.

Though there's no typical Upper Midwest farm town, Harvey probably comes close. Farmers in the central North Dakota farm town of 1,800 raise virtually all the other crops, except for potatoes and sugar beets, found elsewhere in the region.

Harvey is typical of Upper Midwest agriculture in another way, too.

Corn and soybeans continue to become more popular with farmers, often at the expense of wheat.

Soybean acreage in Wells County, in which Harvey is located, has jumped sixfold in the past decade, to 191,500 in 2012 from 30,500 in 2012.

The number of corn acres in the county has risen fivefold, to 99,700 in 2012 from 18,500 in 2002.

"There's so much interest in corn and soybeans, and it keeps growing," said Tim Loen, an agronomist for the Harvey location of Velva-based Farmers Union Oil.

The rising interest in corn is a big reason why the number of parts carried by Lelm Implement Inc. in Harvey has grown by 60 to 70 percent in recent years, says Cody Magilke, who manages its parts department.

More farmers are just getting into corn and buying equipment for it. Some other farmers, who had been sharing equipment to grow relatively small amounts of corn, are increasing their corn acreage and buying equipment of their own, Magilke says.

Wheat acreage in Wells County has dropped to 146,000 in 2012 from 220,000 in 2002.

Pros, cons of corn

Estimates from the NDSU Extension Service's 2013 projected crop budget illustrate the potential benefits and shortcomings of planting corn in the Harvey area.

Corn's projected return for central North Dakota is pegged at $166.23 per acre, compared with $98.91 per acre for wheat and $113.82 per acre for soybeans.

In other words, corn's projected per-acre profit is roughly 50 percent higher than the two other crops.

But corn also is more expensive to plant. The cost of seed and fertilizer, among other things, is substantially higher with corn than other crops. When planting is late, the odds of a poor crop increase, putting the bigger investment in corn at greater risk.

Corn costs $454.14 per acre to plant, with the cost of wheat pegged at $290.15 per acre and the per-acre cost of soybeans estimated at $258.48, according to the NDSU Extension Service projections for central North Dakota.

Corn's higher per-acre cost will factor into how many acres of the crop are planted in the Harvey area, especially if planting is delayed even further, Larson and others said.

Successful run

Farmers and agribusinesses in Harvey, like most of their peers in the Upper Midwest, have enjoyed a strong extended run, thanks to high crop prices and generally good yields.

That's led many farmers and agribusinesses in the Harvey area to invest in their operations.

"Probably 90 percent (of the Harvey economy) is generated by farming. So when farmers make money, it's good for the whole town," Magilke says.

For instance, The Arthur Cos. location in Harvey has spent more than $10 million to upgrade its facilities since 2007, officials say.

Reimche agrees that farmers generally have fared well financially and have at least some cushion against a bad year.

At the same time, however, the cost of land and other expenses continues to rise, he says.

"You've got to consider our higher costs," he says.

Awfully cold April

As recently as late February, the odds of a late spring in Harvey seemed relatively low, farmers and others say.

But that changed after late-spring snowstorms and a chilly April that prevented most of the snow from melting until late in the month.

The average temperature was at least 20 degrees below normal nine days during the month and above normal only two days, according to the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network.

Farmers with plenty of indoor storage space were able to prepare their equipment for planting before the snow melted, Magilke said. But farmers who kept machinery outside couldn't get at it until the melt.

"So there's been a real rush to get ready," despite the late spring, he said.

Steven Seibel, a Harvey farmer, said he's seen both drought and excess moisture in his career.

"But I've never seen a year where winter held on for so long. It just didn't warm up," he said.

Reimche and others say they're optimistic about getting their crops in.

"There's still time," he said. "It's late, though. We need it to be dry. That's going to be make-or-break for us."