SD farmers had fewest days for field work in at least 25 years; 30 days fewer than average year

This year farmers in South Dakota had the fewest days suitable for field work, from May 1 through Sept. 30, in 25 years; and a full 32 days fewer than the average season, according to weekly surveys done by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service office in SIoux Falls. (Photo courtesy of SD Wheat Commission in Pierre.)

Not in a generation, at least, has there been a year like 2019 for South Dakota farmers not being able to get into their fields to plant or harvest crops, or spray them in between.

Since May 1, only 95 days have been “suitable for field work,” for the state’s farmers, according to numbers calculated by Erik Gerlach at the National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Sioux Falls, at the Capital Journal’s request. 

That’s a month less of field work possible this year than in the same five-month span in an average year.

It’s more than than a week less of available field work days than the next “shortest” season,when 102.4 days were rated suitable for field work from May 1 to about Sept. 29, in 1995, Gerlach said.

He chose a starting date of May 1 to avoid comparisons of years when farmers got in the field early versus late.

The average number of days suitable for field work from May 1 to Sept. 29 — or week 14 through week 39, in the surveys NASS does all farming season until the harvest is complete — was 127.1 days from 1995-2018, Gerlach said.

In other words, the state’s farmers, on average, lost 32 days of field work this year due to the wet weather, from May 1 through Sept. 29, or about a fifth of the time, compared with the 25-year average.

That’s a state-wide average; many farmers in eastern South Dakota hardly turned a wheel in their fields this year.

In the week ended Sunday, Sept. 29, there were 5.5 days suitable for field work across the state. That’s not bad. Especially when only 3.6 days, on average, have been suitable for field work in the previous 25 weeks since May 1, according to Gerlach’s numbers.

The survey is done each week by NASS, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“It’s a subjective estimate of our crop progress and reported, generally, by (USDA) Farm Service Agency county directors and sometimes by South Dakota State University agricultural extension agents,” Gerlach said. The idea is estimating how many days that week were suitable for farmers getting done what was needed for that time of year in the field, whether planting, spraying, baling hay, or harvesting crops, Gerlach said.

“The sun could be out all week but if you had 5 inches of rain on Tuesday, you aren’t going to be able to do much field work.”

The survey, while subjective, is done consistently the same way, year after year,  week after week during the farming season, from early spring to when the crops are all harvested, by the same people, he said.

“The names might change some year to year, but not the positions.”

(The Farm Service Agency administers the federal farm program, which entails every farmer.)

The stark variance this year of a month less of field work in five months is a measurement of the year’s problems.

Winter wheat planting was at 59 percent by Sunday, near the five-year average pace of 63 percent by now, according to NASS’s weekly crop progress report released Monday.

The crop progress estimates don’t necessarily take into account changes in farmer’s plans about what crops to plant.

 Corn and soybean crops remain behind normal maturity; 1 percent of the soybean crop was harvested, well behind the five-year average of 19 percent by now.

This year has been a big contrast to years such as 2017, 2006 and 2002, when in the same five months, the state’s farmers had 140 or 141 days suitable for field work, a full 45 days more than the same farmers this year in the same five months.

Caren Assman, as executive director of South Dakota Wheat, Inc., in Pierre, hears and sees from the organization’s farmer members how unusually difficult this year has been.

South Dakota wheat growers are unusual compared to growers in other wheat states: they grow just about as much spring wheat, planted in the spring, as winter wheat, planted in the fall and harvested the next summer. It usually means that if it’s a tough year for one kind of wheat, the other type might flourish.

“Over by Mitchell, one of my board directors said he was trying to get his spring wheat out and his winter wheat in and it was too wet to do either,” Assman told the Capital Journal on Monday. “That’s a little uncommon.”

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