U.S. Farmers To Sow Idle Acres, Yields In Doubt

For the past five years, Nebraska farmer Brandon Hunnicutt has carefully avoided a small, soggy seven-acre plot of land in the middle of his farm, fearing the poor soil will be more trouble than it’s worth.

This year, however, Hunnicutt – and thousands of others across the Midwest – will rush to cash in on near-record prices by sowing corn, soybeans and wheat into every available inch of arable land, including some that have lain fallow for years if not decades.

That should be great news for the global grain system. Crop disasters from Russia to Australia have resulted in some of the lowest inventories ever, and world food prices have shot to record highs.

But Hunnicutt, a fifth-generation farmer, knows bountiful yields are by no means guaranteed on marginal acres like the soggy acreage he will plant this year.

“We haven’t dealt with anything like this before, where we’ve torn something up like this,” said Hunnicutt, who this year withdrew the lands from a government program that pays him for not farming that area to improve the environment.

U.S. farmers will plant crops this year on millions of marginal acres – from former conservation land to dry riverbeds to small patches of fields abutting barns.

Hunnicutt has not tested the fertility of his marginal soil for years, since it collects standing water for part of the growing season. It may take several years to buy enough nutrients to get the plot up to par with the rest of his farm.

“We’ll try to give it whatever it needs unless (fertilizer prices) are way out of line.”

TEN MILLION MARGINAL ACRES

The risk of planting a few extra acres is small for Hunnicutt, whose farm covers 3,600 acres.

But nationally, farmers are expected to boost seedings of the country’s eight major crops by 10 million acres, or four per cent, from last year, sowing more land than any year since 1998 and more than all but four of the past 20 years.

With many of those acres expected to be on marginal lands, many fear official U.S. government estimates – which will initially be based on what it deems historically average estimates of yield, or the amount of bushels each acre will yield – will overstate the size of this year’s harvests.

“It’s not your prime acreage. It would tend to pull down your national average and make it more difficult to reach a trend-line yield, unless you have exceptional weather,” said Shawn McCambridge, analyst at Prudential Bache Commodities in Chicago.

“If it was high-yielding acreage, farmers would plant it every year,” he added.

CAN PAY OFF

Sometimes, investment in additional fertilizer, seeds and labour pays off.

Three years ago, when grain prices hit record highs, Joe Buergler dug out an old airstrip that cut a line through part of the 2,500 acres he farms in northern Indiana.

“It was well worth it,” Buergler said from his kitchen, where he surveys his grain elevator and muddy fields, mapping out which areas will require more nitrogen, phosphate or potash. “You could probably take an extra vacation by farming that little strip.”

Other farmers in the area are pulling out old fence posts that held dairy cattle years ago but less so now amid low milk prices and increasingly consolidated operations.

“If there are a few spare acres somewhere and it makes sense, they will be planted,” Buergler said.

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