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Long wet road for crop scouts

August 20, 2007

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The long, wet road from Chicago to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, goes through Denver… at least for this crop scout. Powerful thunderstorms cancelled one of my flights, delayed a second seriously-rerouted one, and added nearly 1,000 miles and 8 hours to a 450-mile trip that shouldn’t normally take much more than an hour.

Other scouts on the John Deere Pro Farmer Midwest crop tour, some traveling from as far as Argentina, Brazil, or Great Brittain, had an equally difficult time getting to Sioux Falls because of the storm, arriving as late as 3 a.m. for a brief nap before Monday’s 7 a.m. start. Bloodshot eyes and extra large cups of coffee, which usually begin showing up around day two or three of the four-day tour, were the norm on Monday morning.

But as inconvenient as the storms were for air travelers, all this rain could do wonders for the soybean crop, which is fully in pod-filling mode. Mid-season heat and drought stress were showing in the low pod counts in some fields, but persistent rain in the past few weeks has turned things around for soy growers in southeastern South Dakota. As Chip Flory, the director of the tour’s western leg noted, muddy boots on the mid-August crop tour means soybean yields would likely rise from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Aug. 1 estimates. The torrential downpour that crop scouts awoke to find on Monday morning ensured there would be plenty of upside along with the mud.

Organizers have for the first time asked scouts to take note if corn has been planted in fields that housed corn last year, not necessarily to gauge the effects of this year of corn-on-corn planting but to start a database to gauge its effects on yields for future tours. One of the themes of this year’s tour is how much corn is really out there after U.S. farmers seeded more corn this year than they have since 1944 to meet rising demand from ethanol producers. In fact, organizers have acknowledged that they fully expected scouts to have a hard time finding as many soybean fields to survey as they do corn fields. That has not been too much of an issue thusfar, but I’m told it will be as we work our way south and east through the big ethanol producing states of Nebraska and Iowa.

I’ll get my next rest — six hours of sleep if I’m lucky — in Nebraska, known as the Corn Husker state despite large swathes of land more suitable for wheat or sorghum planting than for corn and soybeans. Many farmers there use irrigation pivots to do Mother Nature’s work if she has an off year. She’s been pretty busy lately in South Dakota.

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