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Tim Wohlers of Wahpton, N.D., busied himself in early May with burning some tree rows, waiting for the inevitable warming and drying for proper planting. Photo taken May 5, 2019, in rural Wahpeton, N.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Bring on the sun and a shining star

WAHPETON, N.D.—The Wohlers family is scrambling to catch up with their planting in central Richland County in southeast North Dakota, but the weather in early May put them behind.

This 2019 spring will be remembered for the snow, the inch of rain, the frost coming out of the fields, Tim Wohlers said. Soil temperatures were staying in the mid-40s longer than farmers wanted, but Wohlers was sure some 70-degree temperatures and "nice winds," would fix that in a hurry.

Tim, 48, farms with his son, Tyler, 21, who recently joined the farm after getting farm management training at North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. The Wohlers raise wheat, beans and corn on about 3,000 acres. They got out of sugar beets after 2001. No livestock.

Tim started working on his father-in-law Kent Quamme's farm in 1993. Tim and his wife Jill started farming full-time in 2011.

On May 5, Tim was trying to burn out some piles of trees without getting his pickup stuck. The three tree lines in a 145-acre field had simply maxed-out their life expectancy. "There were more dead trees than live trees, more of a hassle," he said, of the tree piles. "You were wrecking machinery because of it. It was time to take them out."

Tim WohlersGetting the dying trees out would help navigate the fields with the global-positioning system software, without the trees and fallen branches.

Wohlers said he'd work some other, drier, tiled ground for now. He thought this field might be fit for planting in late May. Soil temperatures couldn't stay 45 degrees for too long.

The economic outlook hasn't been so sunny and warm either. Last year the Wohlers realized a "pretty fair," crop but the prices were lackluster. This year is even more daunting.

"So far there's no shining star," Wohlers says, referring to a crop with an opportunity for profit. "Usually you have something you can forward-contract or think, hey, there's potential there. There really isn't nothing" this year.

Tim said he's trying to be smart to survive for another year or two until things get better. It's tempting to cut back on fertilizer for corn and wheat. Soybeans don't offer much hope.

"I raise some conventional (non-GMO) beans that bring a little bit of a premium—nothing crazy," Tim says, but says there is little else to be excited about in the bean market. "You almost gotta sit and wait for a big change in a market because of a disaster somewhere—some part of the country or world doesn't get planted. I always hate wishing that on anyone. Maybe we'll be that part of the world this year."

Prevented planting insurance policies are there, but not a good option, he says. "We're already dipping into the equity. It's no fun," he says.

Farmers are trying to stay patient with the ongoing trade negotiation breakdowns between the U.S. and China aren't helping commodity prices. He still thinks things may come to fruition. "That's kind of the farmer's mentality: You think too positive sometimes, I think," he says.