CAPITAL REGION — With each new snow flurry, the corn and beans still standing in fields are more difficult to harvest.
The early blanket of white this year came before some Capital Region farmers were ready for it, rain and mud having set back their schedule.
The brief intense cold around Thanksgiving gave the tantalizing promise of the muddy fields solidifying to support the weight of heavy farm equipment, but then intermittent rain and snow threatened to slam the window of opportunity shut.
“I’m a young farmer trying to get my feet under me, and Mother Nature throws this at me,” said Jason Arnold of West Charlton. “If the snow would shrink down a couple of inches we would be in business.”
Of the 600 acres of crops Arnold planted this year, 150 acres of soybeans and 100 acres of corn were still standing before Thanksgiving.
He’s been involved in farming to some degree for all of his 29 years but didn’t work for himself until five years ago, when he took over Arnold Haven Farm from his father and uncle, Charles and Richard Arnold.
“It’s my fifth year in business,” he said. “It’s probably going to be my most challenging year because of the weather.”
Arnold has another challenge this year: depressed commodity prices, a byproduct of global politics and retaliatory tariffs.
“I hate to get on the political side of it because I think our president is doing a good job ... but it does kind of put us in a predicament,” Arnold said of the trade war. “There’s one thing we have very little control over: the price the farmer receives.”
David Holck, executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service office in Greenwich, said the rain/snow/mud problem exists across the state.
“I don’t know of anyone who’s totally done — anyone of any significant acreage, anyway,” he said. The irony, he added, is that it was a good year for field crops in New York. “In talking with farmers, the yields have been actually average or above average.”
Upstate New York isn’t the nation’s bread basket — Grain Belt states such as Iowa and Illinois each produce about 30 times as much corn and soybeans per year as New York. But the thousands of acres of field crops here are an important revenue stream for New York farmers as they try to keep their operations afloat against economic pressures and price fluctuations.
Much of the grain grown here goes for animal feed, but the rest is sold for everything from whiskey to ethanol to corn syrup, Holck said.
“The problem has been getting it out of the fields and getting it into the drier,” he said. “I would think if the ground froze that would not be a bad thing.”
Jim Czub of Schaghticoke, who farms corn and soybeans in three counties, said he brought in three loads of corn Monday in the town of Moreau instead of the planned 10.
“We didn’t expect flurries today,” he said. “We were hoping to get a full day today. It’s just going to have to freeze, there’s nothing we can do.
“It’s not much fun,” he continued. “We like to be trying to wrap up this time of the year and the weather’s just not cooperating at all. It rains every two or three days.”
Czub had 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans planted this year, and had to harvest closer to 1,750, counting work for his neighbors.
The longer that grain stands in the field, the more damage it will sustain, he said. Cornstalks will get brittle and snap in the wind. Soybeans can mold. Deer will munch and turkeys will peck. Squirrels will drag entire ears of corn back to the woods. The stray black bear may bulldoze a 30-foot circle.
None of which occurs to the average non-farmer looking at food prices.
“It’s phenomenal what people don’t know, all the things that are out there that can ruin you,” said Czub, calling 2018 one of the most frustrating of his 40-year career.
“You prepare and you have all your money out there and you can’t get it and your losses are starting to mount,” he said. “It gets a little frustrating and disappointing.”
Albert Larue of Charlton had 180 acres of corn and 11 acres of soybeans planted this year. The beans are in but only 116 acres had been harvested shortly before Thanksgiving.
The soybean harvest was good timing on his part, he said, explaining that beans need five dry days for optimal harvest, and there haven’t been five good days for a while. If they’re wet when harvested they’ll mold, he said, and “moldy beans are good for nothing.”
As for his remaining 64 acres of corn?
“I’m thinking positive,” Larue said last Monday. “Late this week we’ll be able to get there.”
He steers the combine carefully in these cusp-of-winter situations, using eyes, ears and experience to detect when the machine is about to bog down in mud, then backing up and trying again from a different angle.
There’s only so much leeway the fat tires buy when they’re attached to a combine that weighs 34,000 pounds with a full load of corn.
“You get just get so much weight you could break through [the frozen crust of mud]. That’s why we've been running careful,” Larue said.
At 29 years old, Jason Arnold is a youngster in the farming community. He’s in it for the long haul, though, and is expanding his operation so he’s got a better chance of making a successful career of it.
He’d like to buy driers, for example, so he doesn’t have to ship his grain harvest promptly wet at potentially lower price, but can instead store it dry and await a better price. He’s added a farm stand on Route 147 and raises a small herd to supply the freezers there.
With this vertical integration — selling not just raw goods wholesale but value-added products retail — he can better roll through a bad harvest or early winter … like the one potentially unfolding in November 2018.
“We’re looking at a 10 to 15 percent reduction if we can’t get right to the ground,” Arnold said.