MONROE, Mich. (WXYZ) — It’s a rough season for farmers in Michigan, and their pains will soon pass to consumers when grocery prices rise this summer.
It’s a dual punch to Michigan’s economy, causing turmoil in the multi-billion dollar industry and an impending price spike for vegetables and products that rely on corn ranging from ethanol to feed stock.
“This is about 55 acres,” Tom Woelmer said, pointing to one of his many parcels of land that hasn’t seen a single seed of corn. “So, if you can imagine, nationwide, there are 10 million acres of corn not planted; that’s the full picture.”
What Woelmer means is that the problem extends beyond Michigan. Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and Ohio have been plagued with the same unusually rainy, wet spring that’s caused conditions that don’t allow for proper planting. In some cases, farmers have given up — they won’t plant any corn this year. Soy beans are also endangered at this stage because the planting season is nearly in the rear view mirror.
“I didn’t put a single seed in the ground in May,” said Woelmer. “Not a single seed. I don’t think that’s ever happened.”
NEW THIS MORNING: Farmers warn that crops are WAY behind. It's dangerous for their bottom line, but this summer you'll notice it when you buy food. What's hitting Michigan is hitting Illinois, Iowa, Ohio and more... our story on @wxyzdetroit at 6:30a. pic.twitter.com/vUDEDUAF3r— Matthew Smith (@MattSmithWXYZ) June 17, 2019
In Monroe County, there was a crop report published by MSU Extension Educator Emeritus Ned Birkey two weeks ago that estimated a mere 20% of corn crops were planted. This past week, it spiked to 80%, but he told WXYZ that you have to understand the math to understand the problem: The numbers spiked because dozens of farmers declared they wouldn’t plant this season, meaning that thousands upon thousands of acres of corn never went into the ground.
“We have hard farmers in the business for 60 years, they’ve never seen a year like this,” said Birkey.
Birkey said he’s even more concerned about crops like tomatoes — he’s aware of farms that couldn’t plant for so long that the pre-planted seeds that needed to be eventually transplanted into fields grew too large for the equipment to handle.
As a result, prices in summer, and more importantly, fall, will be much higher.
If there’s a shred of good news, it’s that crop insurance will help get many farmers to the next season, but it won’t cover all their costs — and not all farmers carry insurance for what’s known as “prevented planting.”
More than 100 farmers arrived at a meeting this month to discuss how the program works because many farmers have never relied on the coverage to take a payment. Idle farm equipment means that local tractor supply companies will have fewer clients to sell to next year, others will return seed in bulk causing a stress to the supply chain. In some cases, pre-treated seed will mold if it isn’t planted — the farmers with those type of seeds will likely eat the cost.
“This here is 400 units,” explains Woelmer as he opens an entire truckload of crates meant to be planted on hundreds of acres of land. So far, he’s planted around 25% of his soybean crop.
While the struggles won’t ruin Woelmer, he said it’s the type of thing that causes concern within the farming community.
It’s no secret that bad seasons have led to severe consequences in the agriculture industry — suicide rates have climbed among farmers. Some universities now teach suicide prevention as part of their agriculture curriculum. The hope is that, with this season’s bad weather affecting most farmers, there is more discussion and help available for farmers struggling, and that insurance payments help stem larger concern.
Meanwhile, there’s an ongoing discussion about how this will scare off young farmers from an industry that’s struggling to attract its next generation of farmers. With even small family-owned operations consisting of multi-million dollar needs for land, equipment and seed, it’s hard for them to continue through a bad season like we’re seeing now.
“We need more young farmers,” said Birkey. “That said, they don’t have the quit to survive a really bad year.”