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Heavy Rains Take Toll*

Heavy rains take heavy toll on Minnesota farmers' crops

Joy Powell

Star Tribune

Sunday, June 17, 2001

Jonathan Ryan squatted next to a row of soybeans, counting the puny plants that have come up during one of the toughest growing seasons Minnesotans have seen in years -- a season already racking up millions of dollars in losses.

Out of a section of 10 plants the farmer examined, five were dead after a hailstorm last week.

"I feel worse now that I counted those," said Ryan, who farms 5 miles south of Cokato in Wright County.

Across the road, a 5-acre pond has welled up in Ryan's rain-soaked cornfield, where stalks are less than half of the height they usually are by this time in the season. The plants are yellowish, a sign that they lack nutrients.

Even in plants that survive, his yield might be reduced. Ryan won't fully know until harvest, when he peels back the husks to see how many kernels are on the cob or opens a pod to count beans.

Ryan and legions of other Midwest farmers have struggled with too much rain, too little sun and heat, delayed planting and cutworms. Ryan also falls into a smaller group of Minnesota farmers whose crops have been pummeled by hail or tornadoes. It's too late to replant most of the corn.

Some farmers haven't been able to get into wet fields to plant soybeans, which they like to have in the ground by May 10. In other areas, soybeans are under water, where they won't germinate.

"The farmers out there are really discouraged," said Harlan Anderson, a hay farmer in Cokato.

"Their crops are not coming out of the ground. Soybeans are rotting. They can't cut hay when it rains every day, because it won't dry. Cold, cloudy, wet days make hay that is very coarse and poor quality. And there's nothing you can do."

It's too early to project losses statewide, said Michael Schommer, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Plenty of sunshine and hot weather in the next two months still could lead to good yields, he said.

Record wet

Down the road from Ryan's farm, another farmer cut only half of his alfalfa before excess moisture stopped him. The cut alfalfa has turned brown and lies in muck and standing water, smelling wet and moldy, nutrients washing away.

The first half of this year is the sixth-wettest on record in the state since 1891, with about 20 inches of precipitation, records show.

Minnesota farmers in 74 counties damaged by spring floods may be eligible for emergency low-interest loans up to $500,000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency (FSA).

In Kandiyohi County alone, hail damage to crops from a storm last Monday is estimated at $3.5 million, an FSA official said.

Even if farmers want to replant, they can't right now because it's so wet, said Charles Casey, dean and director of the University of Minnesota's Extension Service.

It will take days of warm sunshine and wind to dry waterlogged fields.

Dave Schwartz, Meeker County extension educator, held a meeting Friday for about 40 farmers to discuss replanting decisions.

"If we can get into the fields in the next few days, I think some of the growers will replant," he said. "At this stage of the growing season, we're looking at a 30 to 35 percent yield loss for soybeans due to planting date."

From all sides

Ryan, who is a seed corn farmer, said it's too late to replant his corn. He hopes now for hot sunshine for his soybeans. But late Friday morning, his outdoor thermometer read 59 degrees, and the skies were dark.

Ryan and his wife, Jane, are among the farmers who contribute to Minnesota's third-place national ranking in soybean production and fourth place in corn.

Last year, Minnesota farmers produced $1.3 billion in soybeans. Corn brought the state's farmers nearly $1.2billion.

Every day this spring, the Ryans have monitored the weather reports, hoping for a stop to the rain.

But Monday, they looked out their parlor window and saw the sky turning green. Rolling in were dark clouds with a strange white band swirling through them.

Jon Ryan turned to Jane. "There's hail," he said.

As the wind raked treetops, the parents and their three children rushed to the basement. They heard hail beating their metal siding. When Jane peeked out a window, she saw plum-sized hail covering the yard.

"The bad thing about hail is that it will affect crops in a small area, but it won't affect the market," Jon Ryan said Friday. "So we'll have a small crop plus this poor price."

On Friday, his boots sank deep in muck as he walked his fields. He looked over one of many soybean plants with stalks cut by hail. The injuries increase the plant's susceptibility to insects or wind snapping it.

Fertilizers and pesticides have been washed away, but it's too wet to reapply them.

On Monday, about 20 county extension educators and university specialists will discuss replanting and crop-insurance issues in a conference call. Their aim is to help meet farmers' needs.

Joy Powell is at jpowell@startribune.com .

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