Sustainability

2020 Ground Work: Adapting to Planting and Market Conditions in Indiana

Cool, wet weather has continued this spring in my area. I finally started getting into the fields on April 30, and I started planting on May 2. And it wasn’t until May 6 that I finally felt like field conditions met my standards for planting.

I like to plan ahead. This spring, I had a plan to get fields fertilized, planted and sprayed for weed control. But as it often happens for farmers, I have quickly adjusted to what conditions allow. Farmers constantly adapt to weather, markets and more. While we think about the future, we also have to manage the uncertainties of right now so that we can stay in a position to deliver high-quality commodities this season and beyond. I balance the future and the immediate present both as an individual farmer and as a member of the board responsible for the U.S. soy checkoff.

What does that balance look like on my farm?

It’s stressful. I am essentially a one-man show. So, though conditions have often not been ideal, each day I decide what work is most important for my farm based on the weather, sunshine or cloud cover, wind speeds and equipment condition. I try to keep all my equipment ready to go so that I can either spread fertilizer, plant corn, drill soybeans or apply herbicide depending on field conditions and needs.

Right now, I have fields at different stages of progress toward planting, and fields that still have standing water in them. While not quite 2 weeks-worth of good days would allow me to get everything planted, fertilized and sprayed, I expect the weather and soil conditions will force those days to be spread out throughout much of May.

Though I have ideas of what I would like to do in each field, I usually make decisions based on what will be best for each field that day. For example, I’m not sure how I will manage my cover crops this spring. My fields with cover crops aren’t ready to plant yet, and I will wait until soil conditions allow for fieldwork before I decide if I will desiccate the cover crops first or plant first.

These challenges are typical of most springs. But as I do all the things that need to be done on my farm right now, I realize the future is uncertain – more uncertain than usual. Commodity prices keep falling. Right now, there isn’t a market for the beef cattle I’m feeding, as some small, local packing plants are booked for the rest of the year, and some larger regional packing plants are temporarily shut down due to COVID-19. I don’t know what the market will be for the soybeans and corn I’m planting, especially with much of the 2019 crop still in storage.

And these markets are very hard to predict, especially with the complications from the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, the local hay market collapsed on April 1. But then government wage protection programs and stimulus efforts provided money for the unemployed in the area. That provided an infusion of cash to the local Amish, a group I mentioned in my last update that raises livestock but avoids most technology. With that cash infusion, the local hay market went from complete collapse to all-time highs in just a few weeks. (I’m glad that my current hay crop is looking good, despite the potential for an unseasonable, prolonged freeze and light snow in early May.)

Although global commodity markets likely won’t be that volatile in the coming months, they will be hard to predict as regions and countries work to recover from the coronavirus.

I will continue to do my best to adapt daily to the needs of right now – getting everything planted – and the long-term needs – ensuring markets. Part of my current adaptability was shaving my isolation beard to turn it into a social-distancing mustache when Indiana lifted its shelter-in-place order on May 1. Just in time to be more comfortable while I’m in the tractor. My help thinks I look better, too!

Tom Griffiths
Tom Griffiths

U.S. Soybean Farmer

Indiana

Tom Griffiths raises soybeans, corn, hay and cattle near Kendallville, Indiana. He has built his farm with a focus on sustainability, using 100% no-till, cover crops, best management practices to protect soil and water quality, and grazing cattle on marginal land. Tom’s wife Kim is a middle school language arts teacher, and their son Glen works for an area agricultural retailer. He has served as a director for the Indiana Soybean Alliance, and he was appointed to the United Soybean Board in 2018.