For Ellis County farmer John Paul Dineen, 2019 could end up being the worst financial year of a 25-year farming career, and not just because prices have slid for many agricultural commodities amid the ongoing U.S.-China trade fight.
Unusually bad weather this year also is to blame.
“I don’t think that I have ever left that much land fallow,” said Dineen, who farms about 900 acres near Waxahachie but opted against planting nearly 25% of it this year because of extensive wet weather during planting season. “That’s one of those decisions you had to make -- do I risk spending all this money to plant 30 to 40 days late,” which jeopardizes the crop anyway?
New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirm what Dineen and many other farmers in Texas and nationwide already knew — that the weather has made this year the worst planting season on record.
Heavy rainfall, flooding and other adverse events prevented more than 19.4 million acres of crops from being planted across the country and most significantly in the Midwest, which saw a sharp decline in corn, soybean and wheat.
Overall, it’s an increase of nearly 17.5 million acres left fallow compared to this time last year, and it’s the highest number reported since 2007 when the USDA began releasing the report, the agency said. The USDA data released Monday will continue to be updated through January as the season progresses.
“Agricultural producers across the country are facing significant challenges and tough decisions on their farms and ranches,” USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey said in a news release. “We know these are challenging times for farmers, and we have worked to improve flexibility of our programs to assist producers prevented from planting.”
Among the hardest-hit states were Ohio, Arkansas, Michigan and Mississippi, according to the USDA data.
In Texas alone, however, a total of 869,888 acres that normally would be planted with crops are lying fallow this year. That number includes 375,798 acres of wheat and 187,489 acres of upland cotton in fields where farmers were prevented from planting.
In the worst-hit county in Texas, El Paso County, insured farmers were prevented from planting on 36% of the county's agricultural land.
Dineen, a board member of the Texas Farm Bureau, said crop insurance will provide some payments for acres that couldn’t be planted. But it likely won’t be enough to prevent many farmers from losing money, he said.
“Basically, that doesn’t even pay the rents on the land sometimes, in all seriousness” said Dineen, who grows corn, wheat and milo. “But what you have to look at is the risk of putting in a late crop and losing even more money.”
The weather impact wasn't as severe in the Austin metro area. According to USDA data, in Travis County farmers were prevented from planting on 3.7% of the county's 76,408 agricultural acres. In Williamson County, planting was prevented on 2.5% of the county's 289,364 agricultural acres. In Hays County, the percent of non-plantable acres was 1.7 %, while it was below 1% for both Bastrop and Caldwell counties, according to USDA data.
Nationally, most of the acreage where farmers were prevented from planting due to weather conditions was for corn, at 11.2 million acres, followed by soybeans at 4.4 million acres, the USDA reported. Taking into account all acres where crops either failed or farmers did not plant, Louisiana had the highest percentage of affected agricultural land, followed by Massachusetts and Ohio.
"Ohio is maybe the worst hit of all the states in the Corn Belt in terms of the rainfall this spring and summer ... I'm looking at a couple other states like Illinois and Indiana, and really, they're hit hard, too. But I think this report just once again, solidifies that we are seeing Ohio is right next to the worst in terms of hardest areas," said Ben Brown, an assistant professor of agricultural risk management at Ohio State University's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, who analyzed the historical data.
It was the first time Keith Truckor, who has farmed for about 40 years, couldn't plant a crop.
Truckor, 57, who farms in Fulton County in northwest Ohio, normally plants 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans.
"It was a tough decision emotionally and financially," he said. "We as farmers take a lot of pride in planting our crop every spring, and nurturing that crop through the growing season and in harvesting that crop in the fall. Emotionally, you want to get out there and do that, because that's the way you've been brought up."
The record in Ohio was shattered this year for the percentage of acres where farmers invoked their prevented-planting insurance, which allows farmers to collect when conditions such as heavy rainfall and flooding prevent them from planting crops. They receive money to cover fixed costs, which is a fraction of the money they would receive from a thriving crop.
In Fulton County, where Truckor resides, farmers were unable to plant crops on 35.7 percent of the county's agricultural land, according to USDA data analyzed.
In three counties in Mississippi and one in Illinois, insured farmers were prevented from planting on more than half the farm acres.
Ty Higgins, a spokesman for the Ohio Farm Bureau, described the numbers as staggering and shared concerns for the mental health of farmers.
"We just have to be aware that (farmers are) going through some tough times," he said.
As for Truckor, he looks to next season.
"My hope and prayers are that we don't get a couple more back-to-back bad years," Truckor said. "We tend to see, the law of averages, you know you tend to average yourself out. You've got to take the good with the bad or the business that we're in called farming will beat you up pretty bad. It sure hurts in the heat of the moment.
"Our family and the community — there's a lot of support there," he said. "We'll get through this."