CLINTON — Central Illinois farmers are getting nervous that the long, cold and wet spring will delay the planting season.
“Most of the guys are ready to go,” said Thomas Wargel, an accredited farm manager and owner of Black Prairie Ag Services Inc. in Clinton. “The standard conversations I am having with farmers indicate that they are eager and anxious to get in the fields.”
Gene Malone, who farms near Maroa, said he is among those getting anxious.
“I’m not nervous, but a farmer always wants to get the planting done before something goes wrong,” he said. “We’ve got time. I’m not in a rush. But, I do want to get started.”
The target date for planting is normally about April 21, Wargel said, so nobody is panicking yet, but a little break in the wet weather couldn't hurt.
Colder temperatures with light rain and patches of snow delayed planting and fieldwork throughout much of the state, according to the USDA. There were 0.5 days suitable for fieldwork during the week ending April 8. The average temperature was 34 degrees, 13.6 degrees below normal, and precipitation averaged 0.77 inches, 0.07 inches above normal.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, as of February 2017, Illinois had 72,200 farms working nearly 27 million acres, about 75 percent of the state's total land area.
The total value of agricultural products in the state is more than $19 billion, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, making it a major driver of the economy from planting to food processing.
“Everybody gets anxious,” said Terry Ferguson, who farms in rural Clinton. “But it’s hard to get excited when it snows every four or five days. (Thursday) is really the first day we have had a chance to have any form of spring fever.”
On Thursday, the thermometer reached 75 degrees in Central Illinois, the first time since mid-October the temperature had reached at least 70 degrees.
Mike Orso, the director of news and communication for the Illinois Farm Bureau, based in Bloomington, agreed that farmers are ready to start planting. A native of Crystal Lake, he said it all depends upon where you live.
“Illinois is a long state,” he said. “So farmers in Northern Illinois haven’t even started to worry yet because they just aren’t used to being in the fields early.”
Illinois measures about 400 miles from its northern border to its southernmost tip. Temperatures generally vary by 10 to 12 degrees from one end of the state to the other, according to the state Ag Department.
Farmers in Southern Illinois are feeling some pressure, and on a trip to St. Louis earlier this week, Ferguson noticed the fields were empty.
“I didn’t see one soul in the field, and that is unusual for those in the southern part of the state,” he said.
For the first portion of April, temperatures in Central Illinois averaged 10 degrees to 20 degrees below normal, according to the National Weather Service in Lincoln.
The coldest temperatures were on the morning of April 2, following snow that fell the day before on Easter Sunday. The NWS office reported a temperature of 1 degree below zero in Lincoln, and a reporting station in Normal recorded a reading of 5 degrees. In Decatur, it was 18 degrees at daybreak that day.
Snowfall totals have been unusually high for April as well. Lincoln reported 7.1 inches of snow so far this month. The record of 7.8 inches was set in 1920.
“If this winter would ever end, I would love to get in the fields,” said Bob Goodlick, who farms near LeRoy. “It just sounds like it could go on forever.”
Even though Thursday was the warmest day of the year so far, Eric Laufenberg, a meteorologist with the NWS, said spring isn’t here to stay for good just yet. Cooler temperatures will return, and there is even a chance of snow showers over the weekend.
Cold temperatures and low soil temperatures are only part of the problem farmers are facing before returning to the fields. Most fields remain saturated, and more rain is on the way.
As a strong weather system moves through the area this weekend, more rain is expected, according to the NWS.
“That will bring another two or three days before we can even think about getting any work done,” Ferguson said.
The average daily temperatures for mid-April are around 61 degrees, but the afternoon highs on Sunday and Monday are expected to be near 45 degrees. It could be another week before temperatures break the 60-degree mark again, Laufenberg added.
Soil temperatures may remain a concern, Wargel said.
“Nobody wants to put a $400 bag of seed corn into the ground if the soil temperatures aren’t warm enough to sustain growth,” he said. “Corn, in particular, does not do well because it can’t get oxygen. Farmers realize that they only want to plant once and do it right.”