By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, July 4, 2022 — You want new understanding of why Iowa farmers are like they are?
Talk to couple of them, like I did yesterday with my great neighbors and friends Doug Lawton, 67, and Karen Lawton, 64, ask the right questions, and you get reminded what they’ve been through in recent years.
Almost two years ago, in August 2020, they lost 75 percent of their corn crop and all their on-farm grain storage capacity when a God-awful 80 mph “derecho” erupted just to the west and blew for the next 10 hours all the way to western Ohio.
The Lawtons and so many other farmers and townsfolk alike thanked the Almighty for their own survival, then immediately began a clean-up that continues to this very day.
Doug and Karen Lawton, making the 2022 Independence Day check of their corn’s progress, with grandkids Cooper Nailor, 18, Maggie Nailor, 15, Nathan Towers, 14, Natalie Towers and Wesley Nailor, both 13, and Noah Towers, 5, who’s on cousin Cooper’s shoulders.
Surely the 2021 crop season would be better. And, oh, was it ever!
The Lawtons, using Hoegemeyer Hybrids seeds on their 1,600-acre operation here in west central Iowa, took advantage of perfect April weather and by May 1 had all their corn and soybeans planted. The whole rest of the ’21 season, it seemed like we had perfect rains and perfect heat, just when they needed them. Those cornfields produced more than 240 bushels per acre and soybeans that averaged 72 bushels per acre — probably the best crops ever for the four generations of Lawtons who’ve farmed here.
The Lawtons standing two rows into one of their cornfields in our 4th of July check in the record season of 2021.
Now here we are in the 2022 season. Remember how a year ago, Doug and his team had everything planted by May 1? This year, they didn’t get started until May 13 — “and that was a Friday the 13th,” he noted. The spring had been too chilly and too wet.
With the huge, sophisticated equipment and amazing efficiency that American agriculture uses today, all the Lawton Farms’ fields were planted by May 23 — in 10 days! “And I think I recall there were two days we couldn’t plant at all — too wet — so it went real well,” Doug said. “About eight days total to get it done.”
Here the Lawtons are on the evening of July 3, 2022. Yeah, it’s not as tall, but it was planted two weeks later than in ’21. And when you’re standing in it now, it looks and feels good.
If all these swings the last two years between bust and bounty weren’t enough to get farmers mumbling to themselves, then spring ’22 delivered another gobsmacker: The grain markets, in April and May, soared to all-time highs — corn better than $8 per bushel, soybeans at $17.69. Who’d have thought!
Figuring out what it all is going to mean at, say, fall harvest time, requires you trying to understand the Russians’ war on Ukraine (the latter the “breadbasket of Europe”), the drought possibilities in Brazil, international markets, U.S. foreign trade policies and inflation. Got all that covered?
Now do you understand better why Iowa farmers seem as jittery and buggy as they often do?
Lawtons, living in the big picture out there.
None of us are comfortable with that much uncertainty, especially on a holiday weekend, so let’s scale back this conversation to something we can all understand: How’s the Lawton corn look?
The traditional measure of a good corn crop needing to be “knee-high by the 4th of July,” is soooo last century, you know. In fact, that hasn’t been the measure for 80 or more years, back before science gave us hybrid corn.
The Lawtons’ corn a year ago when we checked it was more than 9 feet tall! In fact, it was so strong and lush, I reported that we could see it growing while we were standing there trying to stretch and measure it.
Sunday night, July 3, we found in the typical field that it’s not as tall — but remember planting happened two weeks later than in ’21.
Another significant change in our holiday corn check this year is the Lawtons’ most important crop — their six grandchildren — are now mostly teenagers.
The Lawton grandkids. In the front seats, Nathan Towers (left) and Cooper Nailor. Across the back, left to right, Natalie Towers, Wesley Nailor, Maggie Nailor and Noah Towers.
So when I asked for the measure last evening, the first one I heard was from 13-year-old Wesley Nailor, who yelled, “Nipple-high by the 4th of July!”
His grandmother Karen Lawton growled at him, so he issued a revision: “O.K., ‘breast-high’.”
When we walked into the field, it seemed as strong and healthy as the grandkids are, now growing very fast.
Soybeans off in the distance looked squatty, but again, they were planted a couple weeks later than the robust ’21 crop was.
“It looks pretty good,” Doug Lawton conceded, “actually a little better than I expected. We’ve had good moisture, but we could use a little more right now, too.”
(And, like he called it, his fields were getting that moisture early today. Big heat is forecasted for coming days. Perfect corn growing weather.)
A lot of big questions and answers are sorted out right here, in Doug Lawton’s farm office.
So, on this Independence Day, life is good in rural America. Even when it makes you wonder.
Bless our farmers, their kids and grandkids who are going to keep us all eating, somehow.
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4 thoughts on “Lawtons’ corn crop got started 2 weeks later than the ’21 bin-buster, but it still looks good!”
Great article, Chuck! You did a fine job of explaining the uncertainty that goes with grain farming to the non-farmers that are reading your column!
Sue Green, Cedar Falls, IA
The land, the crops, and the people of the land! Nicely done, Chuck! Also, very “A Thousand Acres”-ish, but uplifting!
Kathleen Murrin, Des Moines
What a great post. As I was reading it, I thought how the Register used to be full of such stories from Don Muhm and the farm department. They helped explain agriculture to city and suburban Iowans who didn’t grow up on farms. It is explainers such as this that help the majority of Iowans who are not farmers understand the uncertainties that farmers live with.
Another great article, Chuck. You captured the richness of farm life in Iowa, the heart and backbone of Iowa. Thanks so much.
Lou Blanchfield, Churdan IA