To plant or not to plant, that is the question

On Lorin Fahrmeier's farm in Lexington, Mo., her husband has already started planting broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. (Courtesy photo)

With one of the warmest early spring seasons in memory, many farmers have taken to their fields earlier than usual. But on the farm, the early bird doesn’t always catch the worm. Planting early holds both big gains and big risks.

Some farmers have taken advantage of the record warm temperatures and have started planting. Chris Pawelski, a farmer from upstate New York, is grateful for the extra time.

“(I’m) planting way early,” Pawelski wrote on our Facebook wall. “(We) started planting our onions on March 17th ... the earliest start in over 20 years.”

Last year, Pawelski said, he didn’t start planting until April 9. This year, he already has everything in the ground. That’s possible, in part, because his cover crop of barley, which protects the onions from wind damage, took advantage of the mild winter and has already started to sprout.

Not everyone is sold, though. Missouri farmer Bryce Oates told us that he’s wary of the mild temperatures.

“I'm hedging my bets and transplanting around one-third of my tomato, pepper, cucumber and melon crop into the field early,” Oates wrote on our Facebook wall. “The rest will remain in trays for another month or so.”

Reuters found that some Illinois soybean farmers are gambling that getting their crop in the ground early will reap an extra 60 cents a bushel if all goes well. But that’s a big if.

Take a look around many Midwestern orchards and you’ll see beautiful blooms on most trees. It makes for great scenery, but has fruit growers uneasy. One freezing-cold spring night in the next few weeks could decimate their crop.

“We’re all saying our prayers more or less, and just hoping to whatever gods that they just spare us from the cold,” Paul Rasch, who owns Wilson’s Orchard on the outskirts of Iowa City, told reporter Kate Wells.

If warm weather holds, both Iowa fruit trees and Illinois soy should do well. If not, they’ll be in trouble.

Federal crop insurance can help farmers mitigate the risk of unpredicatable weather. But to qualify, Uncle Sam makes farmers play by the rules. That means Iowa’s soybean farmers can’t start planting until April 11 if they want to be insured.

“I can see April 10 that there will be a lot of farmers with their tractors running, so on April 11 everybody can get going if conditions are right,” Iowa farmer Riley Lewis told Iowa Public Radio’s Sarah McCammon.

Of course, some farmers will gamble that another frost is on the horizon while others will take a chance and plant early. Will the early farmer reap the biggest harvest? Time will tell.

Are you planting early? Are you worried about another frost? Tell us about it on our Facebook page.