Because of historic rains, less than half the normal amount of corn has been planted in Illinois. The next weeks are make or break for farmers.

Marshall Newhouse with rows of corn seedlings on June 6, 2019, in Capron, Ill. Newhouse estimates the seedlings are about a foot shorter than usual. He only has about 50% of his crops in the ground because of heavy rainfall.

The drive through rural Illinois is bleak these days.

Following an unseasonably wet spring, some farm fields that would normally be filled with burgeoning corn stalks and soybean plants are holding so much water they could pass for ponds. Even those without standing water are barren mud pits because the ground is too saturated to plant. Farmers who managed to find a window to plant their seeds are now seeing the crops’ growth stunted by heavy rainfall.


Illinois, the nation’s second-largest producer of corn, is off to the slowest start to a planting season on record, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As of June 2, Illinois farmers have only been able to sow corn seed in 45% of the acreage dedicated to the crop, 53% below the five-year average. Of the seeds that have been laid, only 32% have emerged, a 59% decline compared with the past five years.

Much of the corn produced in Illinois is used in ethanol or animal feed. And considering the state’s contribution to national production — around 15% in recent years — a disruption in planting has the potential to shake marketplaces, both domestic and foreign.


Farmers face tough decisions about whether to move ahead or forgo planting this season as insurance coverage is lessening by the day, and President Donald Trump’s proposed tariffs on Mexico, which could take effect Monday, further exacerbate the uncertainty. Mexico is the top importer of U.S. corn. At this point, it’s unclear how much corn harvests, both statewide and nationally, could be diminished, but it is paramount that Corn Belt farmers make progress in the next two weeks.

“We’ve got data going back to the ’90s, and when we compare this year to those, we’re in uncharted territory,” said Dennis Todey, director of the Midwest Climate Hub at the USDA. “Because of the lateness of the planting, we’ve lost some yield already; it’s about how much we’ve lost to this point. We must have everything go nearly perfect from here on out. We’ve got a Goldilocks situation. There’s not much room for error right now.”

Marshall Newhouse, a seasoned farmer from Capron, Ill., about 90 miles northwest of Chicago, said he’s gotten less than half of his corn crop planted in the three days that were suitable to plant on his 1,550-acre farm.

A corn seedling just a few inches tall emerges from cracked mud in a farm field in Boone County on June 6, 2019 in Capron, Ill. Many area farmers have not planted most of their crops yet because of the large amounts of rainfall.

On Thursday, Newhouse walked to the edge of his neighbor’s field, where about an acre of land was underwater. Nearby, he cupped a handful of dirt in his palms, balled it up and dropped it. The clump of mud not only stayed intact but made an audible thud as it hit the ground, signaling to Newhouse the ground was in no condition to raise corn.

“If you would choose to work in those conditions, you’d destroy soil structure and get machinery stuck,” Newhouse said. “The consequences would be all summer long. You just stay out of it until you get decent conditions. In this part of our county, we’ve only had three good working days. Downstate, there are farmers who have yet to turn a wheel, and they haven’t even got the three days we got.”

At Newhouse’s farm, his corn plants are a fraction of the size they’ve been in the past.

“As you drive out into rural areas, those who have gotten in the ground, very few are satisfied with the rate of growth right now, simply because there’s not the oxygen in the soil, because the water in there is not allowing oxygen to affect the plant the way it usually does.”

Insurance and politics

On Wednesday, Rodney Weinzierl, executive director of the Illinois Corn Growers Association, kept a watchful eye on the weather. He counted three rainstorms moving over the area, each narrowly missing his 500 acres of farmland about 10 miles outside Bloomington, Ill., and allowing him his first opportunity to get on his tractor and plant this year. He worked through the day to get two-thirds of his corn seeds in the ground. Wednesday was the deadline for corn crops to be planted in order for farmers to receive full insurance coverage in most Illinois counties.


“I do this part time, but the average family that does this to make a living, they need 1,500 to 2,000 acres,” he said. “That farmer has to do three or four times what we do.”

Weinzierl said he expects most farmers to follow his lead and eventually plant corn. However, they have other options.

Farmers can choose to switch to less profitable but easier to grow soybeans.

Farmers could also elect not to plant altogether. Those with so-called prevented plant insurance could decide that the conditions won’t allow planting and accept a lower percentage payout.

Newhouse, 62, who endured the severe drought of 2012 and the voluminous rain of the Great Flood of 1993, said this year is the first in which he’s considered this option.

“I’ve never been in this place before, and I’m learning. In 39 years, this is the first.”

Marshall Newhouse sprays weed killer on corn seedlings on June 6, 2019, in Capron, Ill. Newhouse said he only has about half of his crops planted.

However, the commodities market has recognized that the corn harvest could be diminutive, causing the price of corn to spike as much as 25%, possibly enticing more farmers to take a chance on planting.

There are also strains of corn that grow faster than others, lessening the risk of growing season spilling into months when frosty weather could harm crops.

“That becomes a viable option. But that’s assuming farmers have access to that seed,” Weinzierl said. “It becomes a lot harder if a bunch of other farmers want to do the same thing.”

Farmers also have to weigh how politics could affect their choices.

Mexican and American officials continued working Thursday to reach an agreement to stave off Trump’s proposed tariffs, while some Republicans in Congress threatened to stand up to the White House over the issue. Trump wants Mexican leaders to do more to keep migrants from other Central American countries from traveling across Mexico to the American border.

But lawmakers and industries are worried tariffs will increase costs to U.S. consumers, harm the economy and imperil a major pending U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, according to The Associated Press. Tariffs could also provoke retaliation from Mexico, similar to how China imposed tariffs on soybeans, to take effect July 6, after Trump imposed tariffs on that country.


Wetter conditions

The unprecedented delay is the result of a damp fall, a winter with heavy snowpack and one of the wettest springs on record. All considered, the last six months — each of which has featured above average statewide precipitation — have been the wettest in Illinois over 124 years of precipitation records, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information and the Illinois state climatologist’s office.

“The volume of rain was so much and so widespread there was nothing a farmer could do,” Weinzierl said.

Corn seedlings in Marshall Newhouse's farm field stand about a foot shorter than usual on June 6, 2019 in Capron, Ill.

Climatologists have long known about wetter conditions in the Midwest, including Illinois. In the last century, Illinois has gotten 10% to 15% wetter. An overabundance of water can result in root damage, crop disease and plant mortality in ponded areas. But circumstances could get worse over time.

In a government report on climate change published in November, scientists said higher precipitation in the winter and spring were expected to delay planting season and, in turn, diminish overall yields when fledgling crops had to endure hotter and drier summers.

The largest decline in agricultural productivity in the U.S. by midcentury is expected to be the result of losses from the Midwest, although those were predominantly anticipated to be from increased heat stress in the southern portion of the region. Corn yields were projected to decline 5% to 25% and soybeans more than 25%.

This, however, assumed that farmers would eventually be able to get them in the ground, according to Donald Wuebbles, a lead author on the report and professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


“When you have three 100-year floods in a decade, maybe they are not 100-year floods anymore,” Wuebbles said. “That’s part of the concern for people that this year is becoming kind of the norm. This is what is expected for future changes in climate. We will see more precipitation in winter and spring that will come as larger events. That leads to more concerns about flooding. Flooding of fields, flooding of communities.”

In anticipation of heavy rains, some farmers plant cover crops like cereal rye to soak up excess water in their fields. Some have invested in installing drainage tiles that divert water away.

But without either of those options, the only choice for a soggy farm is patience.

The short-term weather outlook has allowed some Illinois farmers a short reprieve from rain.

Weinzietl hopes that if enough farmers can work their fields through the weekend, the state could have nearly 70% of the corn acreage planted.

“We might not have a record year, but we might get back to average,” he said.



Twitter @_tonybriscoe