One in eight people worldwide do not get enough food daily. In Missouri, 16 percent of people are food insecure. Northern Missouri, however, is a hotbed for agricultural activity, producing the highest amount of goods by value in the state. This series explores agricultural production in Northeast Missouri and its relation to the food chain both locally and beyond the state’s borders. Part two in a ten-part monthly series.
Spring’s rainfall and warming temperatures mean area farmers are busy during planting season — a crucial step in bringing food to tables across the state and beyond.
The array of crops might differ from farm to farm, but farmers in Northeast Missouri work as a team to share information and outlooks for crop prices and weather, said Joe Kendrick, Marion County Farm Bureau President and local farmer. Contributing factors change from year to year, and farmers adjust how much of each crop they will plant based on numerous scenarios. The United States Department of Agriculture, the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Missouri Corn Growers Association are among the groups that work with local farmers during this stage in growing the crops that feed families throughout Missouri and around the world.
Weather, outlook figures affect planting season
Kendrick said that 2016 reflected a strong harvest for corn. The outlook for corn prices is lower than in the past, which affects how much corn farmers will plant. He said there will still be a large amount of corn grown in the area, but some acreage that was used for corn in 2016 will be used for soybeans or another crop that is growing in popularity in Missouri — cotton.
Marion County Vice President and local farmer Ralph Griesbaum said the weather outlook could affect planting in the area. He said he planned to plant a bit more soybeans, too, but he follows a crop rotation that includes plenty of corn to coincide with the farm’s cattle operations. So far, he said the situation looks good, with many farmers getting groundwork completed ahead of planting. In Northeast Missouri, farmers typically plant during the last two weeks of April, he said.
A few farmers have been a bit nervous about the prospect of three or four more inches of rain, but Griesbaum pointed out that the situation improved from a dry period early in the season. If heavy rainfall comes in the next few days, it could delay planting for local farmers — particularly for larger producers who have more ground to cover to get all of their crops in — ultimately making moisture levels later in the year more crucial.
“We’ve never failed to get a crop in, and we’ve always raised a good crop as long as we have adequate moisture later in the year,” he said.
Brent Hoerr, a local farmer and board member with the Missouri Corn Growers Association, hasn’t started planting just yet, noting that wet weather and cooler ground have moved the planting season back a bit from 2016. He said some of his neighbors are already in the planting process.
“Every year is different and you’ve just got to wait for things to be ready — sometimes that’s the hard part,” he said.
He said area farmers look at the weather, the forecast and ground conditions to make their decisions. Hoerr said that farmers strive to have three or four days of good weather following planting. Elevated ground temperatures will cause the soil to crust over. If the soil is dry, it’s best to plant seeds at a shallower depth so all the crops come up together.
Marketing what they do
Hoerr plants corn and soybeans, but he plans to plant a couple acres of blackberries in the future to diversify the crops and help educate visitors about agriculture.
“We do a good job of raising corn and beans and stuff like that, but when it comes to marketing ourselves and what we do, we don’t really take the time to do that,” Hoerr said.
He said that consumers don’t really have a “direct line” to corn producers, because corn often goes into feed for livestock, ethanol fuels and ingredients in various foods that make it to Missourians’ tables.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that the situation was similar throughout the state. The USDA keeps track of data like commodity costs and returns, feed outlooks — corn is used in more than 95 percent of feed for livestock — and long-term projections for each crop. A Crop Progress and Condition report released April 10 by the USDA reported that temperatures and rainfall were higher than normal levels so far, cutting into the number of days suitable for fieldwork. Across Missouri, the report cited temperatures that averaged 3.5 degrees above normal and precipitation levels .89 inches above normal during the week ending Sunday, April 9. Statewide, five percent of corn crops have been planted, with Northeast Missouri farmers planting three percent of the crops. The report found 1.4 days were suitable for field work, compared to between 0.6 and one day for Northeast Missouri farmers.
Planting the seeds for numerous foods, other products
When it comes to the food that makes it to Missourians’ tables, a series of steps during the planting season sets the process in motion. Griesbaum outlined what it takes to plant the crops that are used in countless food items, along with other applications like ethanol fuel.
Some producers use a “no-till” method, where the combine did not leave ruts from the previous fall’s harvest. With special equipment on the planter, Griesbaum can take his tractor and planter and immediately start planting without tilling the soil.
For ground that will be tilled, the first step is to spread fertilizer, followed by a one- or two-batch tilling stage. Next, it’s time to plant the seeds, Griesbaum said, noting some farmers apply herbicide before planting, which works to control weeds in the event of heavy rains early in the season. Farmers also can apply the herbicide after they plant the seeds.
Hoerr said that he has electric drives on his planting unit, so he can vary the population of seeds — planting more in areas where the ground is easier to row. This method of tailoring the planting methods to the crops instead of the field marked one area of advanced technology in planting.
Constant advancement, new technology
Hoerr said he uses high-tech monitoring methods to keep track of various situations on the farm — including yield maps and soil testing — to determine exactly what each plant needs.
“We’ve always had test plots in the past, but it’s always been in small areas of the farm,” Hoerr said. “Now, the whole farm can be a test plot, by just looking at yield maps and using the data. So we’re able to do things better because we’re able to measure it.”
The advanced technology is boosting jobs in the local agriculture sector, he said, and it’s a boon to family farms.
He said the advanced technology could help reverse past trends of younger generations moving into other industries. Hoerr’s son in college plans to return to the family farm, and his father said he looks forward to more young people coming back to rural America.
Griesbaum said seeds that are resistant to different types of herbicide represent one of the biggest advancements in weed control. He explained that the genes are put in the plants so farmers have more options than Roundup Corn and Roundup Soybean. But some weeds are becoming resistant to glyphosate, a key component of Roundup. As a result, companies are making new weed control variants, he said.
A surplus of food, even beyond national borders
Griesbaum said agriculture not only produces a surplus of food for Americans, but the exports are greater than the imports — lowering the national trade deficit. Missouri farmers export agricultural products to neighboring Canada and Mexico, which are the number one and number two export markets for farmers in the state, respectively. The Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) reported that the top three agricultural products are soybeans, feed and fodder, and corn. Together, agricultural exports for Missouri farmers totaled $3.6 billion in 2015.
Hoerr noted that providing food to other nations is important on many levels — many nation’s leaders struggle with providing enough food for their populations, while the United States has a surplus of food each year. Hoerr said exports help to bolster life for citizens abroad and at home through strengthened international relationships.
“There are other places around the world where you can help raise the standard of living,” Hoerr said. “A lot of times, that leads to more peaceful countries because they don’t have the stresses that you have when you don’t have enough to eat.”
The agricultural products from farmers in Northeast Missouri provide quality food and many other items people use everyday.
Food for local tables, many other uses
Hoerr recalled his first experience with the Missouri Corn Growers Association, when he won second and third place in the national corn yield contest. The association helps promote trade with other countries and regularly communicates with legislators for conversations about the industry. Years ago, corn growers worked together to establish ethanol plants near farms, producing the fuel and taking advantage of the byproducts of the production — like carbon dioxide for the beverage industry, grain for feed products and glycerin. Hoerr noted a lot items that can be made with oil can also be made from ethanol and its byproducts.
The result helped stabilize the prices for corn and expand the value within every bushel of corn, due to the utility of the byproducts. He said past subsidies for ethanol have been paid back through taxes and local jobs each year. Whether corn is feeding livestock that is destined for consumption, or is a direct ingredient in foods, Hoerr said a strong market benefits people at every level.
The next time you sink your teeth into a buttery corn on the cob, enjoy a bowl of cereal, take a drink of soy milk or cut into a juicy steak, remember that a family of local farmers started it all with tiny seeds and a great deal of hard work.
Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org