SPRINGFIELD — Despite projected increases in corn and soybean plantings this year after a disastrous 2019 planting season, farmers are gripped by uncertainty surrounding spring weather and the economic downturn from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual prospective plantings report this week, which shows how many acres farmers of major crops intend to plant this spring. Illinois farmers are expected to plant 11.3 million acres of corn and 10.5 million acres of soybeans, according to the report.
If all expected acreage is planted, that would be an increase of 8 percent for corn and 6 percent for soybeans over last year, when record precipitation from January to June decreased plantings and dropped production by 18 percent for corn and 20 percent for soybeans.
Although acreage projections for 2020 “are probably in the ballpark,” said Mark Tuttle, president of the DeKalb County Farm Bureau, any rebound from last year could be stifled by the economic shock caused by the pandemic.
As the pandemic drives down the price of oil, gasoline prices across the country have plummeted, with many Illinois pumps below $2 per gallon. That has stalled production of ethanol, a gasoline alternative made from corn. Some ethanol plants have idled while being pushed toward unprofitability.
“When a lot of these acres were bid for, and talked about a month ago, none of this was foreseen at that time,” Tuttle said, adding that 40 percent of U.S. corn production is used for ethanol.
The economic hit could be lessened, Tuttle said, by exporting more corn, feeding more to livestock or switching some soybean acreage to corn, but that will not offset all damage.
“I think the farmers will plant their crops without a problem, we always do,” he added. “It’s a matter of marketing on the other end of this crop is going to be tough. It’s going to be tough to make money.”
Increasing uncertainty is a wetter-than-normal spring forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA scientists currently predict April through June will be rainier than average in Illinois. However, forecasters have said they expect this planting season will not be as wet as last year.
Tuttle said he has seen “extremely wet” conditions over the past two weeks while driving through northern Illinois and parts of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. And although that does not guarantee 2019-like planting delays, “We need a good four-to-five-week dry period, late April through May, to get this crop established,” he said.
Planting season in Illinois generally runs from early April to early June, varying in different regions of the state. Many farmers last year, especially those in the most flooded areas of the state, were planting well into June and even into July.
If June 2020 comes along and farmers have yet to plant corn, Tuttle said, some may forgo planting and instead activate the “prevented planting” payments in their crop insurance coverage.
“If there’s wet spots in the Midwest and it’s June 1, I think some of those farmers will just wait it out and take prevent plant,” he said.
Nationwide, the USDA’s report shows farmers expect soybean plantings to increase 10 percent this year and corn plantings 8 percent. Illinois farmers are projected to be among the top states in acreage gains from last year if all acres are planted.
According to the report, Illinois farmers expect to plant the most acres of soybeans and second-most acres of corn, behind Iowa. Illinois ranked first and second, respectively, in production of each crop last year.
The prospective plantings report is compiled by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service using survey results from more than 80,000 farm operators during the first two weeks of March.