Corn field generic

Corn grows tall in fields across Nebraska in 2017.

It’s the billion-dollar question on everyone’s mind. Over gas station coffee or six-packs of beer, in farm-store aisles or church pews, the dreaded F-word is dominating conversations in the Corn Belt.

“The biggest stressor right now is: Will the crop finish ahead of frost,” confirmed Bob Birdsell, a farmer in northwest Missouri. “An early one would be a disaster.”

Birdsell is a member of DTN’s Agronomy Advisors, a group of trusted farmers and ranchers who report monthly on their operations and current events in ag. This month, DTN quizzed these growers on expected frost dates and what they might mean for millions of acres of late-planted crops.

It’s an anxiety-inducing topic, in a historically difficult year, and that stress has taken a toll on farmers and the agricultural community that works with them. With that in mind, the Agronomy Advisors also reported on how the pressures and uncertainty of the season have affected their mental health and how they manage that stress.

Racing the frost

A clear line emerges in the Great Frost Speculation of 2019, between the southern and northern Corn Belt. In states such as Missouri, Arkansas, Indiana and southern Illinois, most farmers are optimistic that corn and soybean fields will reach maturity before the first frost of the season. Farther north, in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Michigan, it is quickly becoming clear that many fields, but especially cornfields, might not make Mother Nature’s deadline.

In southern Minnesota, farmer and ag consultant Mark Nowak has been crunching numbers all summer. He tracks the growing degree units (GDUs) his corn crop has accumulated, calculates future GDUs based on weather forecasts, and compares them with his fields’ slow march toward maturity.

As September approaches, his calculations look grim.

“Most of our 105-day corn needs 2,500 GDUs to reach black layer,” he explained. “That puts us out to Oct. 10. Normal first frost for Nowak Farms is Oct. 5.”

In southeast Michigan, where some corn has yet to tassel, Raymond Simpkins is watching a similar timeline unfold. “We probably need until the third week of October for good maturity,” he said. “We usually get a hard frost the first week of October.”

Nowak is actually ahead of many in his region; he planted most of his corn in early May while many Minnesota acres were planted after May 20. “[I see] a 50-50 chance that a normal first frost or close to there will wipe out half a billion bushels of corn,” he concluded.

Farther south, farmers are more hopeful. “Average frost for us is around Nov. 15,” noted southern Illinois farmer Josh Miller, who planted soybeans deep into July. “The corn will be fine. But some of the beans might be hurt by an early frost.”

In west-central Illinois, farmer John Werries also expects to dodge the region’s typical late-October frost. “We do have a sizeable efficient dryer and aim to start corn harvest Sept. 9, if not sooner,” he said.

In northeast Arkansas, the corn harvest is actually already beginning and frost dates rarely cause worry, added farmer Charles Williams. “But we do typically need to have the last of our cotton defoliant out before Oct. 10 to ensure we have enough heat for boll opening,” he said.

A season of stress

Nearly all of the DTN Agronomy Advisors reported that this season’s many stresses—the trade war, an historically bad crop year, consecutive years of low prices and the caustic cauldron of current politics and farm policy fights—are taking a toll on their mental health and wellness.

In Arkansas, Williams has watched a neighbor go bankrupt and hears talk of looming farm liquidations. “I’ll be gathering my 25th crop this year, and it’s as tough as I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “The biggest challenge for me personally is finding motivation to keep moving forward.”

Missouri farmer Kyle Samp echoed that sentiment. “This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult summer of my 16 years of farming,” he said. “This has always been a volatile business, but it seems like it has been turned up to 11 the last 12 months. That, coupled with having a young family and being in a time of transition on our farm, will always make things that much more stressful.”

Managing that stress is not easy, particularly in a traditionally conservative industry such as agriculture, where toughness and stoicism are highly valued and mental health issues often stigmatized. The DTN Agronomy Advisors shared some of their tried and true ways of managing stress—and even transcending it.

Faith, family and community topped the list of favored methods—isolation, as Samp noted, is a particularly dangerous dynamic for farmers living in rural areas. “My circle of peers that farm as a full-time profession locally is pretty small, but social media has made it so much easier to connect with others in the same station in life,” he noted. “Connecting with others that deal with the same stress, at a minimum, makes this a little less lonely.”

This season of stress has reminded Williams to fall back on his faith: “I find solace in the fact that nothing comes to us by chance, seeing that all things are in God’s hands,” the Arkansas farmer said.

In Missouri, Birdsell relies on the demands of the livestock side of his operation and his growing family to take his mind off looming frost dates and cratering commodity markets. “You have to find what works for you to relax—for me, church, family time and two granddaughters help a lot,” he said, adding that “It’s amazing how relaxing holding a 4-month-old baby is, especially if you don’t have to be the one changing the diaper!”

And of course, there’s the oldest trick in the book—liquid sedation. “I’m lucky in that I have an easygoing personality, and a good, stiff drink once in a while slows my brain down enough to get to sleep,” Birdsell added.

Supportive spouses have proven invaluable, several farmers noted. “I’ve always gritted my teeth and just waited out the tough times in the past, but I finally sat down and shared where I was with my wife one night,” Samp recalled. “I’m married to a saint, and she has really helped me shoulder the load this year.” Miller, of southern Illinois, also reported that his wife helps him deal with the stress that strikes him “somewhat randomly” and leaves him reeling. “Sometimes blaring music works,” he adds, “But other days, the stress outweighs the musical benefits.”

Some farmers noted that life has given them heavier crosses to bear than even the weighty woes of the agricultural industry right now—and those challenges have the benefit of putting farm stresses into perspective.

Keith Peters’ son flies night missions in Afghanistan, which gives the Ohio farmer daily lessons on letting go of things beyond his control. “So the usual stressors from farming seem a little less important,” he said. “We all need reminders of what’s important in life.”

In Illinois, Werries is traveling through a gauntlet of medical scares that have helped him find surprising peace about the transitory troubles of farming.

“I want you to know that what I used to think was so important, like too much rain, not enough rain, low prices and a multitude of other things, have not been so important to me the last three years,” he said.

Three years ago, his wife Ruthie was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of cancer. After years of treatments, an experimental clinical trial finally gave her some relief, only for Werries to face his own cancer diagnosis this summer. One surgery and one dangerous bacterial infection later, Werries is cancer-free, but his beloved Ruthie continues to face an uncertain future.

“We don’t know what we are facing next,” Werries explained. “Have you heard all things are relative? Well, the problems in the farm community are minuscule compared to what is on my mind these days.”

The Werries’ faith and community has been their bedrock, and the experience has been a master class in finding peace amid worldly stresses, he said. “We are all trusting the Lord above,” he said. “That is how we handle stress.” — Emily Unglesbee, DTN staff reporter

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