Mother Nature has given farmers the cold shoulder this year.

From a delayed start to a cool, wet summer farmers have been struggling all season to prepare crops for harvest time. Even now when the harvest should be nearing its end, many local farmers have yet to get into their fields.

"This is on par with nothing before. We're in uncharted waters," Northern Partners Coop general manager Eric Anderson said.

Local farmers are weeks behind schedule with only about 5 percent of corn harvested and about 30 percent of soybeans, according to Anderson.

Ken Beck and John Hochstatter farm about 1,900 acres of corn and beans near Mendota and have been spending most days lately trying to come up with little projects to keep them busy because consistent rain has kept them from working their fields.

"That's our whole income that's in the field right now," Hochstatter said.

Across the state things aren't much better.

Fourteen percent of the corn crop in Illinois was reported as harvested, according to the Illinois weather and crops report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service on Monday. The five-year average for this point in the season is 77 percent.

The soybean harvest was reported as 33 percent complete, while the five-year average is 86 percent.

"It's basically impossible to get anything accomplished right now," La Salle County Farm Bureau president Monty Whipple said.

With consistent rain showers, farmers have only been able to get into their muddy fields sporadically this year and in some fields there still is standing water.

"You hate to make ruts and do damage to the soil structure of the fields," Whipple said.

There doesn't appear to be any end in sight to the uncooperative weather and days are only getting shorter as fall stretches toward winter, which is leaving some farmers worried when they're ever going to get a chance to harvest this year's crop.

"I'll be very surprised if we're not harvesting corn in April of next spring," Whipple said.

Whipple explained that modern corn plants are capable of lasting through the winter as long as the stalks remain upright, keeping the ears off the ground.

The problem isn't only that the fields are wet and muddy; the crops are very wet, which means a low quality product.

"As wet as the corn is now, you couldn't keep it for more than a couple days now without it going bad," Anderson said.

Currently, the moisture level of corn is about 30 percent. In order to get kernels to the accepted quality moisture level of less than 15 percent, farmers will have to wait for crops to naturally dry on the stalk or use drying bins, in which harvested grains have moisture removed by the application of heated air in a mechanical system.

Since the weather is unlikely to warm up much as winter approaches, this means farmers may have to take their chances and harvest moist corn.

"There will be tremendous amounts of drying, which will slow harvesting down," Anderson said.

Although farmers often have small drying bins of their own, the amount of grain that will likely need drying would overwhelm individual farmers as well as area grain elevators.

"The main thing is most farmers are big enough now that what they have on the farm can't handle what they raise. So they rely on elevators for drying and storage," Whipple said.

Unfortunately for farmers, according to Whipple, elevators are not accepting any grain with moisture levels greater than 30 percent.

"We're at the point where the elevators are going to have to take it because we have no other choice," Whipple said.

Not only will harvesting be slowed down by drying, it also will lead to cuts in profit margins.

"A lot of this potential profit is going to go down the drain," Whipple said.

While modern crop science allows for bumper crops even with delayed starts and poor weather, those high-tech seeds aren't cheap and neither is the cost of drying all those grains.

"We put this crop in with the highest input in our lifetimes," Beck said, noting the cost of getting seeds into the fields, not counting land rental and equipment costs, was about $400 an acre this year.

Beck said the current value of the crops in the field, considering drying and other post-harvest costs, is likely at or below farmers' input costs, which would mean a zero profit year.

He estimated the cost of drying crops at $100-$125 per acre.

One factor that may help local farmers turn a profit, according to Beck, is they're not the only ones having these problems. Overall demand may go up as very few farmers are bringing in crops throughout the heartland.

"Nobody knows how it's going to affect grain prices," Anderson said.

During times like these, conversations with farmers and others in the industry can be pretty depressing, but Beck said it's important to stay positive and not doubt the farm community's ability to pull through.

"Are we going to do it? Of course, we're going to do it. It's our livelihood," Beck said.

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