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Planting begins but waiting isn't over yet for Red River Valley farmer

Vance Johnson of Breckenridge, Minnesota, has offered up a 60-acre field for five years of study on soil health and conservation practices.

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Vance Johnson is a fourth-generation farmer at Breckenridge, Minnesota. He was finally able to plant corn on May 17.
Evan Girtz / Agweek
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Editor's note: Jeff Beach will be checking up with Vance Johnson throughout the growing season as part of our Follow a Farmer series.

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. — Vance Johnson was finally able to get his first field planted on Tuesday, May 17.

Starting in the late morning, he’d have 80 acres of corn knocked out by 2 p.m. or so. But there was no big need to hurry. Getting that field planted would be followed by more time to hurry up and wait for another field to dry out.

“It’s field by field, day by day basis right now,” said Johnson, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and sugarbeets near Breckenridge on the west edge of Minnesota. He also farms on the North Dakota side of the Red River.

Farmer climbing into tractor cab
Vance Johnson climbs into his tractor May 17 near Breckenridge, Minnesota, to get started on planting several weeks late because of wet cool weather.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Wheat and sugarbeets would normally go in before corn, but “this was the field that was ready,” Johnson explained of the field that had been planted to sugarbeets in 2021.

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For Johnson and many other farmers in the Red River Valley, the cold, wet spring of 2022 has meant tossing the normal planting routine out the window. Pumps connected to drain tile systems were still running regularly on a neighbor’s field a mile or so away, even as seed was finally going into the ground.

“All spring, we’ve been to the point where we need two days to get decent field conditions and a day out, it rains on us,” Johnson said. “We’ve been a day out for the last three weeks.”

Johnson, a fourth generation farmer, said planting wheat and sugarbeets should have started in late April and he should be about halfway through soybean planting by May 17.

Tractor pulling a planter in a field.
Vance Johnson started planting corn on May 17 near Breckenridge, Minnesota, but had yet to plant any of his wheat or sugarbeet acres.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

It’s kind of hard to cuss all this moisture coming off as dry as we were last year,” Johnson said. “At least we can bank it; if we get dry this summer, we’ve got something we can use.”

It’s getting late for wheat but he hasn’t given up on his wheat acres yet, about 20% of his planting mix. With wheat prices high, the profit potential is too good to pass up.

“When you look where the markets are, I might hold through with the little bit of wheat I was going to put in anyway,” Johnson said. “The next rainfall could make a decision on that, too.”

And a member of Minn-Dak Cooperative, he remains committed to planting sugarbeets, another 20% of his mix.

Reddish corn kernel in field of black dirt
A kernel of seed corn is poking out of the ground on May 17, 2022, near Breckenridge, Minnesota, in a field being planted by Vance Johnson.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

One small field will be planted to sugarbeets as a part of a test plot in cooperation with the Wilkin County Soil and Water Conservation District .

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The field had been planted to corn in 2021 and sugarbeets usually follow wheat, but Johnson has found a way to make sugarbeets after corn work and plants about half his beets into corn.

Johnson remembers telling his dad “that I didn’t see a future for wheat on the farm, so we need to figure out how to put beets after corn.”

But he has kept wheat in the rotation, in part because the crop is harvested early, providing more time to work fields that need help drying out.

Wet fields weren’t an issue in 2021, but that was then.

“No two years are ever the same,” Johnson said.

Farmers face reflected in mirror; field of black dirt stretching out in front of tractor
Vance Johnson looks out over his field as he begins planting corn on May 17. It was the only field ready to plant near Breckenridge, Minnesota, and across the Red River in North Dakota because of a cool, wet spring.
Jeff Beach / Agweek

Reach Jeff Beach at jbeach@agweek.com or call 701-451-5651 (work) or 859-420-1177.
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