RADCLIFFE, Iowa (CN) — From a cab perched over the front of his bright green John Deere combine, Dennis Friest watches as rows of dried cornstalks are pulled into the big harvester trundling through a field that stretches to the horizon. Yellow corn kernels pour into a hopper behind the cab, and chopped up cornstalks, leaves and shelled cobs are kicked out onto the ground where they will be plowed into the soil next spring.
Friest, who farms 1,600 acres in north central Iowa with his son Brent, is just a few days into this fall’s harvest that was delayed by wet weather. Even on this bright fall day, it is slow going through muddy spots.
“It is a bad harvest this year,” he said referring to the unusually wet October weather. “But we’re getting it done.”
This scene is being repeated across Iowa this fall as farmers bring in corn and soybeans under challenging conditions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday reported that 41% of the nation’s corn harvest is complete, which is more than a week behind schedule. Iowa had just 26% of its corn harvested, about half of the average crop at this point.
When it is all in the bins, U.S. farmers are expected to have produced 13.8 billion bushels of corn, less than in 2018, due in part to the wet spring and summer. Vast swaths of prime farmland in several Midwest states were taken out of production by spring floods, and much of it is still under water along the Missouri River.
Each year’s corn and soybean harvest in the Midwest represents a massive transfer of raw material from millions of acres of farmland to grain bins, co-op elevators, feed mills and biofuel plants.
For Iowa farmers like Dennis and Brent Friest, this is when they reap the bounty from what they planted months ago.
As his combine crawls through the shoulder-high stalks of corn that have dried to a yellowish brown, Dennis Friest monitors a computer screen mounted on the ceiling of the cab that gives him precise details, including moisture content of the harvested corn and the number of bushels per acre. Color-coded images on the screen map the combine’s path through the corn eight rows wide. By changing screens, Friest can see strips where different brands of seed corn were planted, so he can compare yields in real time. He will download all this data to analyze later on his home computer.
On this day, the combine bogs down from time to time. Even though mammoth tires “float” over wet soil, the combine will slip and slide in water standing in low spots, known as prairie potholes, that were left from the Ice Age when the Des Moines Lobe of the Wisconsin Glacier sat atop north central Iowa tens of thousands of years ago.
When pioneers came to Iowa, this was a vast wetland. At the turn of the last century, they buried clay tile to drain the swampy land, and turned it into some of the most fertile farmland on the planet.
As the combine moves, the monitor shows 240 bushels per acre. “240 bushels an acre is a very respectable yield,” Friest he said. He averages 240 to 250 bushels per acre on his fields. “Fifty years ago,” when he started farming, “120 acres was a good yield,” he said. “So we have doubled our yield” — thanks to genetically modified seed, modern fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides.
As the combine plods along, Brent pulls alongside in a tractor pulling a wagon so Dennis can transfer the shelled corn from the combine into the wagon as tractor and combine move through the field in tandem. The shelled corn is then transferred by auger into larger wagons that are pulled to the farm where it is dried and stored in grain bins.
They will operate this way every day, from sunup till well after dark, to get the job done. Under ideal conditions, they can harvest 70 to 100 acres a day, which would have astonished farmers just a few decades ago who harvested corn by hand, pulling ears of corn off the stalks and tossing the husked ears into a wagon pulled by horses that knew how fast to walk.
Although farming 1,000 acres seemed unimaginable not so long ago, Friest said there are farm operations cultivating 30,000 acres, which requires an enormous investment in equipment and hired labor.
Besides Dennis, work on the Friest farm is done by his son, a herdsman who takes care of the 5,000 hogs they feed; Dennis’ wife Helen, and her cousin’s daughter. “I consider this a true family farming operation,” Friest said, although he notes that the family includes “Mother Nature and Uncle Sam,” and there’s isn’t much the farmer can do about either one.
The corn they grow will feed their hogs and cattle, or it will be sold to one of four ethanol plants in the area, a co-op feed mill or foreign buyers.
“Twenty-five percent of what I grow ends up in the export market,” he said. That includes corn, soybeans, distiller grains (a byproduct of ethanol production), pork and beef. “The United States is 5% of the world’s population,” but Friest said American farmers produce food for the world.
Like many farmers in the Corn Belt, Friest is frustrated with the ag export market, but he stops short of laying the blame on President Donald Trump.
“He was part of the problem for us, on tariffs,” Friest acknowledged. But he said the president is working toward a long-range strategy of trade agreements that eliminate tariffs. And he credited the president for a trade deal that opened Japan’s markets to U.S. pork, beef and other farm products.
“He is working toward a positive thing for us farmers,” Friest said.
The president also came up with $28 billion in cash subsidies for Midwest farmers after China halted purchases of soybeans in retaliation for Trump’s tariffs on Chinese products. Farmers were relieved, but Friest said they prefer trade to aid.
“We want free trade, access to foreign markets,” Friest said, which is why he said it is important that Congress ratify the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, the replacement for NAFTA, which
opened Mexican and Canadian markets to U.S. agricultural exports.
More recently the Trump administration angered American farmers with new rules that reduced mandated production by ethanol plaints, which consume a major share of U.S. corn production. Four Iowa ethanol plants have shut down as a result, but farmers put the blame squarely on the EPA for issuing proposed rules that betrayed what the president had promised to farmers.
Farmers can no more control politics than the weather. And when the harvest is complete, and his corn and soybeans are stored, Dennis Friest will watch the markets and decide when to sell.
“It’s a gamble,” he said.