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Thinking ahead to spring time

A sunflower plant sprouts up from a field near Belfield last year, signaling that the 2012 growing season was in full bloom. Among the possible popular crops in North Dakota for this year could be corn and soybeans, according to some experts. Soybeans have become more popular in the state over the years.

Agriculture experts are ready to make predictions on what will happen when the white blanket lying over the ground thaws and farmers return to their fields to begin planting.

"There will be two big considerations for growers this spring: the lack of moisture for subsoil and topsoil and the fact that no farm bill has been past yet, which creates a lot of uncertainty," said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union in Jamestown. "But even with those considerations, the great thing about farming is that there are a lot of variables at play and I think it helps keep producers optimistic about the growing season ahead."

Barth expects grain growing to be popular with North Dakota producers this year, especially in the north and northwestern areas of the state.

But he said it will depend on precipitation heading into growing season.

"Potentially, corn could be a big crop in the state in 2013, but it will take more moisture and will need to be seeded on a timely basis," he said. "I would also expect that some producers may switch from corn to planting grain, like wheat or barley, which is more attractive to producers without the rain or significant snow going into the growing season. Soybeans are also likely to be popular crops again, as the last few years have proven."

Frayne Olson, North Dakota State University crops economist and marketing specialist, said there will still be money to be made in grain production.

"But the income potential with corn and soybeans is likely to be better," he said. "The market right now encourages farmers to grow corn and soybeans because the market for them is tight from last year due to the drought."

Fortunately for the state's crop producers, Andy Swenson, North Dakota State University Extension Service farm management specialist, said North Dakota weathered summer drought fairly well, setting it up for a better growing season in spring compared to other parts of the country.

"The high price projections are a leftover from the short U.S. crops of 2012," he said. "The risk in crop prices always is a reality in projecting revenues. Also, producers are worried about whether average yields in 2013 will materialize. Unlike last spring, soil moisture is depleted."

Lefor grain farmer Lee Klein concurred with Swenson's assessment.

"Going into 2013, if we do not get a lot of moisture in the spring, there's not going to be a very good crop I'm afraid," he said. "We are going into 2013 the same way we went in to 2012 with hardly any subsoil moisture and it looks like hardly any snow so far in the wintertime.

"We had very little rain in the fall of 2011, and we were going into 2012 with hardly any subsoil moisture at all. We didn't have much rain this summer, but it always came in the nick of time. When the crop was really starting to hurt, we'd get a half-inch of rain. Some of the crops we had around here may not have been a bumper crop, but it was way better than anyone expected."

Klein said issues that might result from the lack of rain are helped by the technology that has been infused into 21st century agriculture production.

"You don't need a lot of rain to raise a crop today because of the technology we have, but you do still need timely rains," he said. "That's what saved us in 2012, but in 2011, everybody thought we were going to have a bumper crop because we had rain, snow, we had moisture that was going to be great, but it turns out we had too much rain and the crop got all of this disease and we had crop failure, instead."

Moisture in the south could also impact crop prices up north, Klein said.

For example, he said the winter wheat crop -- much of which is produced in the South -- is hurting due to the lack of precipitation.

Klein said that could bring up the winter wheat prices for producers in the Northern parts of the country since the winter wheat prices in further south are often what dictate prices.

"I planted winter wheat last year, and I think the price was $5.50 a bushel. Right now, it is as high as $9. It's because of supply and demand," he said. "The winter wheat crop down South, I think, is hurting too because they haven't had much rain either. The South is the winter wheat-producing area that pretty much determines our prices up here. All of the sudden they didn't have a very good year and people thinking there may be a short supply and the price went up $3 or $4."

Forcing prices higher by withholding the grain supply would be hard to do though, Olson said.

"It is extremely difficult to do because so many farmers grow the same crops, and withholding the supply would only work if a large amount of farmers agreed to do it," he said. "The questions that would arise are how high would the price have to go before selling again and who would sell first? In concept, this works but it would be hard to get the effort for it to happen."