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Jenny Schlecht/Agweek

Soybeans and the year with no fall

This is a column about two of the most important things in Upper Midwest agriculture: the weather and soybeans. We'll start with the former, end with the latter.

It's risky to generalize about area weather. The region is so big, with so much variation in it, that what's true one place — or even most places — isn't true everywhere.

But it's safe to say that in most of the Upper Midwest, this was the year without a fall. Oh, there were some nice days in September, at least in the places I spent the majority of my time. But October was miserable; repeated storms, some of which dumped significant snow, complicated agriculture and life in general.

Those of us who live in this part of the country understand the set-up. We expect December, January and February to be nasty — if they're halfway decent, we're pleasantly surprised, even grateful. And we know that November, March and early April can be rough; we just hope the bad stretches are rare and short.

But October is supposed to be a pleasant transition from summer to winter. It's supposed to bring down the leaves, bring out sweaters and light jackets and allow a generally smooth harvest of late-season crops.

Not this year. And that was especially tough on farmers who raise soybeans, at least in terms of acres affected.

A few basics for people who aren't familiar with area ag: Wheat, corn and soybeans are the Upper Midwest's three "major" crops; they're by far the leading crops in acres raised in the Dakotas and Minnesota. Wheat is harvested first, in August and early September; then soybeans, typically in late September and October; and finally corn, typically in late October, November and even into December.

If you're not familiar with ag, think of it this way: Soybeans are close to the ground, corn much higher in the air. That makes the former more difficult to harvest — and more susceptible to damage — when snow lies deep in fields.

No, don't write nasty emails. I'm not saying farmers who raise other late-season crops haven't been affected; of course they have. I'm simply saying that soybeans, because of their nature and the huge number of acres to harvest, have been the biggest overall concern.

Harvesting soybeans has been hard on equipment. Hard on farmers' spirits. Hard on yields. Hard on the bottom line.

One more ag basic: Soybeans have been a fairly consistent money-maker for Upper Midwest farmers, often showing a profit when other crops do not.

What will 2019 bring?

Now, in no small degree the result of President Donald Trump's trade war, soybean prices are poor. As a result, many area farmers already are considering planting fewer soybeans in 2019; difficult 2018 harvest conditions might, to a small extent, reinforce that thinking.

Soybeans, of course, will remain an invaluable, essential part of area ag. Sometimes known as "the miracle crop" or "the wonder crop," they provide high-quality food for people, excellent feed for livestock and have many other uses, ranging from biofuels to industrial. So area farmers will continue to grow soybeans, and they'll remain a major crop here.

But the way things look now — and, yes, it's a long way until 2019 planting — soybeans won't be quite as popular as they have been. Blame that, in small part, on the year without a fall.

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