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Wet land slows Minnesota farmers

Most years by now, John Schmidt would be done planting his spring wheat and well into his soybeans.

But it wasn't until after noon Tuesday that Schmidt filled his drill for the first time with the high-yielding Faller variety of spring wheat.

His wife, Sandra, sat inside the cab of the Case tractor, running the hydraulic levers that controlled the flow of seed into the drill.

"Usually, I just bring out lunch," she said, laughing, pointing out that she rarely gets on a tractor.

But this year, with the cool, wet weather and wet fields keeping farmers about three weeks behind normal planting schedules, every little bit helps.

Actually, his own fields still are too wet, so Schmidt was planting 80 acres of his brother-in-law, John Morberg, who was out of state doing claims adjusting on federal crop insurance.

"This was (sugar) beets last year," he said of the flat, black field showing a few remains from the 2008 crop. "They ran really good."

This field is a few miles east of the Red River, 8 miles north of Alvarado, Minn.

Quite a few farmers were out in Marshall County, northeast of Grand Forks on Tuesday, as the rain showers that plastered the southern parts of the greater Red River Valley stayed away for the most part.

Across the road from Schmidt, two big air-seeding rigs were planting sugar beets into a field harvested last fall of soybeans, without first cultivating, an apparent bow to the lateness of the season.

Across Minnesota, only 24 percent of the spring wheat was planted by Sunday, little of it in the Red River Valley, compared with an average of 76 percent in by the same date in the previous five years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's weekly report from St. Paul.

In North Dakota, only 13 percent of the spring wheat was in the ground by Sunday, almost all of it planted last week. In a normal year, 74 percent of the crop would be planted by May 10, USDA said.

Almost a third of the sugar beet crop was planted by Sunday in North Dakota, 46 percent in Minnesota, compared with normal average for the date of about 85 percent in both states.

Corn planting in Minnesota actually is ahead of normal schedule because the central and southern parts of the state were not affected by spring flooding like the Red River Valley.

In Argyle, Jerry Whitlow was keeping track of the fertilizer going out of Argyle Co-op Warehouse Association, where he's worked for 37 years, since he was 18.

The Co-op has two TerraGators, the big-wheeled machines with wide booms that look like giant insects swooping across fields at 20 miles an hour, spreading a mixture of nitrogen and phosphate for farmers before they seed wheat or sugar beets.

Using satellite-based thermal-mapping of the fields' foliages last summer, the TerraGator can be programmed, using GPS and auto-steer and variable application mechanics, to tailor the amount of fertilizer to each small area of a field, from 175 to 325 pounds per acre, Whitlow explained.

Each TerraGator can cover as many as 1,000 acres a day.

"They started at 5:30 this morning, and they go until about 10 at night," Whitlow said of his drivers. "The farmers got such big machinery, it's tough to keep up with them."

One the plus side for farmers this spring is that fertilizer prices, at $400 a ton or so for nitrogen, for example, are about half of what they were last fall, Whitlow said.

Schmidt points out that his 30-foot John Deere press drill and the white Case 2094 tractor aren't the latest, biggest pieces of equipment.

"This is pretty old-fashioned. I'm just a small farmer so I don't have to have the big stuff."

The Schmidts live in Argyle, where John taught school for 32 years and coached basketball; Sandra taught school for years in Alvarado. He continues to farm about 500 acres, not quite a commercial-size farm, all near his home farmstead where they used to live, southwest of Argyle.

"So I don't have to haul equipment around too much," he said.

If the rain showers expected this week are enough to delay planting even more, farmers will change plans, putting in more soybeans than wheat, because planting goes faster and the crop can be harvested later more easily.

But Schmidt seems calm when he says, despite being pressed for time, that it's late but not too late for getting in the crop.

He kept going until about 9 p.m. to finish the 80 acres.

"Every so often, we have a year like this," he said. "Back in '97, I don't think I got out (in the field) until after the first of June."