Central Illinois family farm weathers an uncertain season
It's been an uncertain growing season for Central Illinois farmers, with periods of drought giving way to several consecutive days of rain. Now, it could be a record-approaching harvest.
I wanted to know more about what goes through the mind of a Central Illinois farmer during a season with so many variables, so I visited Muddy Creek Farms, just outside of Deer Creek.
Dan Magarity leads me towards the edge of a cornfield at Muddy Creek. He manages the farm with his son, a family business. At 2500 acres, Muddy Creek would be considered a midsize operation for the area.
As we approach the first row of crops, Magarity pulls an ear of corn and begins peeling back the plant’s covering. With a practiced eye, he counts the rows and estimates the total number of kernels. For farmers, the big details, like bushels per acre, are just as critical as these small details.
“It's always important,” Magarity told me earlier that morning, as we sit at a kitchen table in his ranch-style home just a few minutes drive from Muddy Creek. “You want to, when you put your corn in the ground, you want to make sure that you're getting your right population. We currently plant around 35,000 to 35,500 seeds per acre.”
Those seeds, which contain a mix of different genetically modified plants made to be resistant to threats like bugs, disease and weather, come from five different seed suppliers: Syngenta, Northrup King, Wyffels Corn Hybrids, Beck’s Hybrids and Dekalb Genetics Corporation.
“We had kind of a rough early to mid summer in Illinois,” My question trails off as Magarity starts to laugh. “You’re laughing, is that understating it a little bit?”
“That’s understating it a lot, yes,” he said. “For almost six weeks, it literally didn’t rain. From the third week in May ‘til the first week in July, we received no rain.”
Back at the farm, Magarity finishes counting kernels.
“16 rows around and I’m gonna guess there’s 38 kernels long,” he said. “It takes 80,000 kernels to make a bushel of corn and a bushel of corn should weigh 56 pounds per bushel.”
It’s not an exact science, of course, when you’re working at a scale of 35,000 seeds per acre.
But, Magarity calls the cob “very promising,” a different outlook than he had just a few weeks earlier.
There are a few things Magarity said saved the season. The first, and most obvious, is around five inches of steady rain over the week of July 6th, during the pollination period. Magarity said his corn shot up almost a foot and a half.
Then, after this reversal of fortune, another round of hot, dry weather.
“And I’m thinking ‘boy if we don’t get another rain, we’re not going to fill our kernels and we won’t have the test weight to really get a good yield,’” Magarity said. “And here, in the last week and a half, we picked up another three and a half inches of rain, which has made all the difference in the world.”
Another factor Magarity cites is relatively low humidity. Though there were periods of excessive heat, like the string of days that felt above 100 degrees in late July, humidity was never high enough to damage crops.
A third reason is buried underground, below our feet.
“We have the best dirt in the world,” Magarity said. “The black soil goes down three, four, five feet in places. It holds good moisture. Our roots, when we planted the corn, went deep because it was so dry. That’s partially what saved us.”
Finally there's the corn itself, which advances in farming science have genetically modified.
“Which is resistant to your pests, your insects and also to your weeds,” Magarity said. “We have cleaner cornfields. We have no bug problems.”
Good dirt, steady rain and genetically modified crops saved Magarity from an estimated 20 to 40 percent yield loss on his harvest.
Those losses would have been covered by crop insurance, which Magarity said requires premiums of between $16,000 and $18,000 a year. But a lower yield would have meant increased prices for distributors and consumers.
“Last year at this time we were looking at $6.50 a bushel,” he said. “As of today, we’re looking at $4.60 a bushel, almost a two bushel reduction. And that hurts. You’re not going to make the profit you have in the last few years.”
The United States Department of Agriculture predicts a 2.2 billion bushel carry out, which would provide a surplus of corn. But, Magarity says we won't know for certain until around mid-September.
Still, Magarity is on the local co-op board managing grain elevators and says there’s a lot of demand for corn in our region. The need is driven particularly high by the corn-hungry ethanol plants in Hennepin, Peoria and Pekin.
As we gaze out into the Muddy Creek field, Magarity told me he’s been farming since 1981. He started in the business with his father-in-law. Though this season was difficult and uncertain, he recalls a worse drought in 1988.
“Which I remember well. We had some corn that only made 27 to 30 bushels per acre,” Magarity said. “Versus, at that time, should have been around 150, 160 bushels per acre.”
Though it can be a volatile career and conditions can change wildly from year to year, there's a lot Magarity likes about the job he's held for just over four decades.
“I enjoy my independence,” he said. “Making my own decisions on when to start planting, when to start harvest. It’s always rewarding in the fall to see the green come in. That’s our payday.”
Payday is just around the corner. Magarity said he’s already going over the combine, making sure everything is prepared for harvest to start around Sep. 20. Once harvest starts, Magarity will work from when the elevators open at 7 a.m. to when they close around 8 p.m. The whole process takes at least five weeks, depending on how much it rains.
Before we leave the field, I asked Magarity about a piece of folk wisdom. How reliable of a predictor is checking to see if corn is “knee high by the Fourth of July?”
“The old timers would always say that,” he said. “And the other one was: ‘don’t plant your corn until the ears of a squirrel are a certain size.’ They had all kinds of different sayings.”
Magarity said the only time he can remember when the corn didn’t meet the July 4th benchmark is the drought in 1988.
“This year we weren’t a whole lot taller than that,” he said. “But once the rain started, in a week’s time, you got two foot of growth on the corn. It just looks, it just looks really phenomenal now.”