I’ve begun to accept a rather disheartening conclusion – the 2019 harvest may be over. Not finished. But over.
We started harvest on August 9, which was 86 days ago. That means our harvest season has lasted almost three months, which is not far off the entire length of our growing season. Since August 9, we’ve received 8-9 inches (200 mm) of rain, a foot of snow, and countless cloudy, dreary, cool and, sometimes, even foggy days and nights. We harvested 13,500 acres of durum, spring wheat, canola, peas, lentils and flax. That number is just over 300 acres short of completing harvest.
This is not completely uncharted territory for us. In 2009, we harvested 25% of the crop in November after a miserable second half of September and all of October. Even last year we didn’t finish harvest until the end of October. November harvests are not common, but they do happen.
The reason 2019 will stand out is because of how relentlessly difficult harvest has been, right from start to finish. In his 42 years of farming, Dad has never been through a harvest this challenging.
When it rains this much at harvest time, considerable delays are inevitable. You just can’t drive heavy equipment over wet fields – you get stuck. Even when you can, the crop has to dry enough to process it. When you harvest grain too wet (called “tough”), you get discounted when you sell it to pay for the cost of drying it down. If it’s too tough, no one will buy it, and the grain will start to heat up inside the bin. You can ruin entire bins of grain from this.
The other big issue with muddy fields is the damage you cause to the soil. Think about walking around in dry dirt. You don’t make footprints. Think about muddy dirt, and how the soil compacts everywhere you step. Now consider what a 65,000 pound combine does to that wet soil. None of it is good, and it lasts a long time. And, as damaging as it is to the soil, it can be even worse for the equipment itself. That kind of compaction creates more resistance to move that large equipment, to turn it, and, worst of all, creates extreme force to pull out stuck machines. Stuff breaks.
Finally, and most importantly, the wet conditions ruin the quality of the crop. Constant wetting and drying causes stems to break, laying the standing crop on the wet ground. That same wetting and drying washes colour and weight out of the mature grain. This is most pronounced in quality sensitive grains like wheat, durum and lentils, but even canola and flax have their limits. A year like this one pushes all those limits to the breaking point.
A loss in quality can be tremendously costly. A fall from a #1 grade in durum to a #5, in a year like this, where quality durum is hard to come by, can cost $4-5 per bushel. On every acre of high yielding durum, this runs in the hundreds of dollars per acre of lost income. Combined with the increase in costs of compacted soil and greater maintenance costs on equipment, not to mention the cost of drying tough grain, and the losses from weather like this quickly find their way into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like watching this happen. You work for an entire year, preparing plans and strategies, employing every tool you have at your disposal to give your crop every chance to succeed, giving up time for holidays and seeing your family, all to try and squeeze as much as you can out of one of your 45 chances to grow a crop; then, at the end, just as you are about to put the crop in the bin, it’s taken away from you. You watch as the incessant rains destroy what you have worked so hard to build. And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
It’s heartbreaking. Day after day, you see the rain, the clouds, the fog, and, finally, the snow, damage and degrade what was once a crop filled with so much promise. It’s then you realize it was never your crop at all – you never had it. You never will have it. The crop you knew was out there for you is gone. And you are forced to confront the reality that you are now in a completely different place than you expected to be. Harvest will be hard. Exhausting. The profit you thought might be there at the end of it all has evaporated. Now, it is no longer about how to grow your business for next year. It’s about how you get through this one.
The thing is, despite all of this miserable, wretched weather, I never imagined we wouldn’t get this crop off. I always believed we would finish harvest this year. Why? Because we always have. Never, not once in my, my dad’s, or my grandparents’ lifetimes have we left crop out overwinter. This time may be different.
With the sudden turn to cold and snow last Sunday, it finally hit me that 2019 wasn’t going to be a year we could put behind us – at least, not yet. Even if we manage to get this last field off, there will be no fieldwork completed this fall. There will be no preparations for 2020. Next spring will be extremely busy, trying to finish up 2019’s harvest, prepare the fields for planting, spraying the weeds that got established this fall. The challenges of 2019 will haunt the 2020 crop as well. It is on us to get our work done quickly in the spring to ensure our 2020 crop isn’t compromised before it even comes out of the ground.
All of this was not easy to accept. Failing to complete harvest is surrendering to the power Nature holds over us; that despite all our technological prowess and knowledge, despite all of our skills and experience, all the improvements we have made to our equipment and logistical power, Mother Nature can still beat us – and beat us badly. When the weather turns against you, no amount of money or resources can allow you to avoid the pain.
Perhaps this is reasurring, in a way, to know that there are still some things beyond our control. To know Mother Nature is still the primary controller of our destiny. Once again we are reminded that the two primary drivers of our farm’s success, weather and markets, are beyond our control. Perhaps it would be better to play it safe in the future, to move out of primary production and do something where we have more control over our fate.
I reject that line of thinking. Farming is hard. 2019 was a not-so-gentle reminder of this. But to be out here, in the thick of it, fighting the fight, playing our cards against the formidable Mother Nature, knowing that if she turns against us, we will lose; this is what farming is. It’s knowing that at any time, on any day during the growing season, a single bad storm, big rain, crazy wind or cold night can destroy it all. It’s knowing all this, but doing it anyway. Seeding the crop, protecting it, nourishing it and hoping for your shot at actually pulling it off – that is why I do what I do. Yes, sometimes we lose. Sometimes, it all really does turn against you and even the best farm managers get beaten. But sometimes you don’t. Sometimes, it all goes right and you get the crop of a lifetime. You just don’t know.
Over the next few months, we will be preparing for 2020 planting. It might be a challenge. It might be too wet, too dry, too cold, too hot – we might lose again. But we’re going to do it anyway. Because at the end of it all, we’re farmers. I am a farmer. My kids deserve the chance to be farmers too, if they want to be. I’m going to continue to try my best to create that opportunity for them. We made it through 2019 and the harvest from hell. We can make it through anything.