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Central Illinois farmer reflects on a changing industry during his final harvest pass

After 55 years in the field, central Illinois farmer Mike Wurmnest is preparing to make his final harvest pass at the wheel of his John Deere S670 combine. The farmer isn’t certain what day he will finish his final corn and soybean harvest, but it’s coming soon. This time next year the family’s harvest will be the primary responsibility of the Tazewell and Woodford County producer’s son, Kyle Wurmnest.

On a sunny, slightly breezy day in late September, however, Wurmnest was solely focused on the harvest at hand — just another in a long line of harvest runs on the family farm near unincorporated Deer Creek since 1900, when his grandfather and grandmother settled the property after migrating from Germany.

During a harvest ride-along with this reporter, Wurmnest also had time to talk about his long career as a farmer, the changes he’s seen in agricultural production methods and how he has adapted his farming practices to meet changing production standards and techniques.

Costs rising with the times, but life on farm remains constant

“The early spring was pretty good weatherwise, and we got our soybeans in (the ground) earlier than our corn. That’s unusual for me, but now the agronomists are saying there is more of an advantage to longer growing seasons for soybeans, so I planted soybeans in April,” said Wurmnest, who is a past district director for the Illinois Corn Marketing Board and a proponent of conservation farming and ecologically sustainable farm practices.

Like all U.S. farmers, Wurmnest has grappled with the rising costs associated with farm inputs such as seed, chemicals and fertilizers. To help keep fertilizer costs affordable, each fall after harvest the conservation minded grower gauges his soil’s nutrient profile by submitting random samples to a laboratory for testing.

The tests reveal the amount of phosphorus, potash and organic matter in the soil samples, which helps determine which soils require additional nutrients. By submitting samples drawn from soils at three-acre intervals, Wurmnest is able to better isolate which areas are deficient in nutrients — as well as which areas require little or no extra fertility.

“This is called variable rate technology (VRT),” he said. “Our fertilizer company has computer monitors in their trucks and a program that is loaded to put a certain amount of fertilizer in a certain spot. The VRT helps stretch our fertilizer dollar and not over-fertilize. We also do a variable rate spread with limestone, which is used to lower the acidity level of the soil.”

Seed costs have risen recently as well, though not as precipitously as fertilizer prices, which have increased up to 100 percent for certain varieties. Add in rising machinery costs due to supply chain and availability issues, and the challenges are mounting for farmers like Wurmnest.

Though this year’s seed and fertilizers were secured before prices blew up around a year ago, the veteran grower is concerned about prices for inputs-- and general inflation-- going into the 2023 growing season, for the sake of his son and other young producers.

“I expect prices to be higher. Next year, we’re going to have even more money in the crop than 2022,” said Wurmnest. “A lot of farmers have to borrow money to buy these inputs to grow a crop, and high interest rates are a concern. I’m very concerned about the economic outlook as a businessman.”

Favorable commodity prices, farm bill programs keeping farmers afloat

Wurmnest said that in order for farmers to remain solvent in 2023 and beyond, favorable commodity prices (in early October, corn was trading for around $6.80 per bushel, with soybeans fetching around $13.80) will need to continue. In 2019, 2020 and 2021, farmers’ incomes were enhanced through ad-hoc government disaster and pandemic payments. For many producers, these payments spelled the difference between a profitable or break-even year, and a negative income year — or even bankruptcy.

With fertilizer, fuel and machinery prices showing no sign of abating, Wurmnest is concerned that a slide in commodity prices could spell doom for farmers already on shaky financial footing.

“The question mark is what we’ll get for the commodities we will sell, but I am expecting lower incomes next year because of higher costs,” he said.

As lawmakers prepare to write the 2023 Farm Bill, Wurmnest is hoping the legislation will retain or enhance strong crop insurance, safety net programs and payment parameters negotiated in the prior farm bill, which was passed in 2018.

“Crop insurance is subsidized by the government (for use in) times of natural disasters such as droughts and floods, or if yields are down,” he said. “The multi-peril insurance that we can purchase is partly underwritten by government payments, and that makes it a lot more affordable. In a year like this we won’t be using it, but it’s very important to farmers.”

Soil conservation a “basic” part of farming

The longer he has farmed, the more Wurmnest has come to appreciate the vitality of central Illinois soils — and the need to preserve it. On his 1,300-acre property, which straddles the Tazewell and Woodford county lines near Deer Creek, soil conservation is a “basic” aspect of his farm sustainability plan, he said.

“We try to be very environmentally conscious in the way we raise our crops. We try to keep the fields in place and not let them erode away. One way is to keep a little more residue (harvested corn stover and bean stubble) on the field. We’re also using fall cover crops, which is a fall-planted crop that (provides) greenness over the winter and into the spring,” Wurmnest said.

“In the low areas we plant a strip of grass so that when we have hard rains, it drains over the grass waterways and catches the silt and keeps it on the farm, instead of going down stream. We use buffer strips; we don’t plant all the way up to the creek, and that catches silt when water is moving. We try to keep the fields in as good or better condition than when we got it from our parents. It is a challenge, but it is the right thing to do.”

Not heading for the shed just yet

On this fine fall day, Wurmnest was ecstatic about the size, quality and condition of the corn he was harvesting. A real time yield monitor installed in the cab of his combine showed corn entering its hopper at a rate of 250 to 260 bushels per acre, well above the USDA’s current projected average of 204 bushels per acre for Illinois-raised corn this year. Wurmnest was also thrilled with the moisture content of the corn, which, at 22-23%, is considered ready to be picked.

“The first field of corn I planted this spring was followed by a cold, wet week and we had issues with (soil) crusting. I had to loosen the crust to let the plants come through. We had a lot less disease in corn this year compared to last year. This year we sprayed a fungicide to keep the plants healthy, and this field has good stalk quality,” he said. “The harvest is looking great, at least in this field.”

Even though he’ll soon be retiring when the 2022 harvest is complete, Wurmnest won’t be “heading for the shed” immediately. First, he’ll be taking his corn to the Roanoke Farmers Cooperative grain elevator on the Washington-Morton blacktop, where it will begin its journey to area ethanol plants in Pekin and Hennepin, or perhaps be destined for export via a local barge terminal.

There’s also the pumpkin waste he acquires from the Nestle-LIBBY’s plant in Morton that will need to be spread for use as fertilizer in advance of planting a winter wheat crop. In addition, there are soil samples to be procured and submitted for analysis, along with the requisite fall tasks of applying fall fertilizers and planting cover crops.

After those tasks are complete maybe, just maybe, Wurmnest might be able to consider his retirement to be official.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.