Record crops predicted — but ‘it’s not in the bin yet’

Posted: 09/01/2010 12:01:00 AM CDT

Outside its State Fair building, the Farm Bureau’s hard-luck soybean patch is an annual reminder that farming isn’t easy.

One year, its fairground plants were eaten by rabbits. Another time, zapped by drought. Then trampled by visitors.

But this year, the Minnesota Farm Bureau’s tiny soybean patch is green and lush — and so are the crops on real-life farms all around the state. Thanks to an unusually wet and warm summer, crop records are expected to tumble this fall when the combines start rolling.

“The corn and soybeans out there look fabulous,” said Marvin Johnson, a farmer near Independence. And his alfalfa is growing so well, “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says.

Not that farmers at the Fair are boasting. Fall harvest is still several weeks away, and there’s an ingrained wariness about bragging. A freak storm, a killing disease or an early frost could come anytime — although, with temperatures in the 90s this week, the latter seemed a little remote.

“You have to remember, it’s not in the bin yet,” said Gary Wertish, vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. Still, he knows the lush-looking crop and stronger grain prices have helped the mood.

“A lot of it goes back to having a good-looking crop in the field,” Wertish said. “If you’ve got a poor crop, you don’t know if you’re going to be able to make your payments, and that’s a tremendous burden.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has made a series of ever-happier forecasts of Minnesota’s crop prospects. On Monday, it reiterated that Minnesota has the nation’s finest corn and soybean crops — a potential monster harvest worth more than $8 billion, about 10 percent more than last year.And with grain and livestock prices turning stronger, Minnesota’s rural communities should get an economic lift, too. That’s welcome news anytime but especially now, with recession sapping other parts of the economy.

Still, at the Fair it’s clear that a wet and warm summer hasn’t helped everyone. Inside the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, the competition of growing gigantic vegetables is having “an average to below-average year,” said Phil Klint, superintendent of vegetables and potatoes.

Case in point: The Fair’s giant pumpkin is more than 100 pounds lighter than last year’s record, though the 2010 winner still tips the scales at 1,036 pounds.

“With all this moisture, on and off, a lot of things exploded,” Klint said.

Minnesota fruit growers have had challenges, too.

For grape growers, the season “was going to be good, but we had the Mother’s Day frost,” said Cindi Ross, a board member of the Minnesota Grape Growers Association. That killed primary buds at some vineyards, which cuts in half their grape output.

For apple growers, “it was really a goofy year,” said John Leadholm of Fischers Croix Farm Orchard in Hastings. “We had May (weather) in April, and April (weather) in May,” including an untimely frost that zapped some apple varieties then in bloom. But not every variety was affected, nor every orchard. Even individual trees had some branches hit, others spared, he said.

Backyard gardeners have their own issues. The warmth and rain have made peppers go wild, but tomatoes have been iffy. That’s kept the Fair’s master gardeners desk busy.

“Most of the questions today were about tomatoes, why they didn’t grow or rotted on the vine,” said Ellie Anderson, a master gardener from Washington County. Her diagnosis: blossom-end rot, where the tomato looks red on top but the bottom has turned black. Blame the heavy rains.

On Machinery Hill, seed dealer Bert Enestvedt has been a Fair exhibitor for nearly 70 years. For farmers, he calls this year “sort of an ideal growing season,” then added, “That’s in our area (in Renville County). There are some areas that aren’t so lucky.”

He has heard the whispered forecasts of fantastic yields. And it raises the question: In an ideal season, how many bushels per acre is he hoping to see from his corn seed?

Here, Minnesota reserve takes over. Enestvedt makes no bold predictions.

“I’d rather just preserve that answer,” he says.

Tom Webb can be reached at 651-228-5428.