Seeds of doubt: Some farmers opt for empty fields

Kent County

LOWELL TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — In a soggy field still occupied by last year’s corn stalks, Gary Blough climbed into his high-tech tractor.

“This is going to be our last day of planting corn,” Gary Blough said Monday as he prepared to plug kernels into the ground.

That means that Blue Sky Farms, owned by Gary Blough and his two brothers, will leave 200 of its 1,800 acres of corn fields empty.

Over the last few days, corn and soybean farmers throughout West Michigan have faced tough choices — whether to plant their crops in fields that won’t dry or let them stand empty. Many are choosing the latter.

Farmer Gary Blough
Farmer Gary Blough sits in a tractor at his Lowell Township farm. (June 17, 2019)

“I’ve never seen a year like this,” Gary Blough’s brother, Carl Blough, said. “Every year is different, but most of them aren’t this severe.”

Lowell Township corn field
Tractors run through a corn field in Lowell Township on June 17, 2019.

In May alone, there were only four days without rain.

“Some of it is still not plantable because of wet spots in the fields,” Gary Blough said.

For farmers like the Bloughs, it comes down to risking the loss of crop insurance money. Farmers have crop insurance to help when extreme weather won’t allow them to plant, but even that won’t cover their losses.

It’s based on a complicated formula that includes corn or soybean prices already set this spring, their average yields for the past 10 years, and how much coverage they bought.

To make it more complicated, corn farmers had until June 5 to decide whether to keep a field empty. Soybean farmers had until June 15. For every day they wait after that, they lose 1% of that insurance money.

“We would have intended to plant a lot more corn, yes, but the season’s getting so late, we’re just deciding we’re better off to not plant it,” Gary Blough said. “The yield’s not going to be there.”

Their insurance agent, Chris Shellenbarger of Spartan Insurance, said up to 80% of the corn and soybean farms she insures have decided not to plant some fields, taking insurance payments instead. That includes corn and soybean farmers.

Young corn in field
Young corn in a Lowell Township field. (June 17, 2019)

They won’t be making money from the insurance payments, Shellenbarger said.

“Farmers would prefer to plant every acre. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and this is the worst year ever,” he added.

For the Bloughs, leaving 200 acres of cornfields empty could cost them $100,000.

“We may not be able to buy a new tractor next year, stick with the old, because we won’t have that extra income,” Gary Blough said.

The Bloughs sell their corn for feed and ethanol. They said their losses could be offset if the rain leads to smaller yields of corn and higher prices.

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