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Good season for U.P. farmers

Ilsa Minor | Daily Press Rows of corn near the edge of a field blow in the evening breeze recently in Escanaba Township.

ESCANABA — While 2020 has been a rough year for many industries, Upper Peninsula farmers have been blessed with good weather and a strong season for crops and livestock.

“By and large, it was a pretty good season,” said Jim Isleib, crop production educator for Michigan State University Extension.

According to Isleib, warm temperatures that stretched well into September and rains gave additional time for many crops to ripen. This was particularly important for forage crops, which make up the majority of the U.P.’s field crops.

“The hay season had a slow start for pasture hay, but the conditions improved so much — we got water and heat,” said Isleib, adding that while some farmers may have seen less rain, the amount of heat and water seen across the pensinula was abnormal for the region.

That good fortune may not be over. According to the agricultural weather forecast published by MSU, the region could see slightly warmer and drier conditions over the next few weeks. Most of the U.P. has already experienced frost — functionally halting the growth of many plant species — but some areas near the Great Lakes have not seen a hard freeze yet.

One crops that is susceptible to frost and freezes is corn. Frost stops corn from reaching “physiological maturity,” the point where the kernels have reach the maximum possible carbohydrate content. Most of the corn in the U.P. is raised to be fed to animals and never reaches this point due to the regions cool temperatures. However, Isleib believes that even the corn still standing in fields waiting to be cut and dried this year will yield a good crop for farmers.

For those who grow corn or other crops for human consumption, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had an affect on prices, but far from what was predicted.

“It’s been a funny year, market have been a little unpredictable. Although, they didn’t dip as hard as I think most of us expected, and it hasn’t been great, but it hasn’t been a nightmare either,” said Isleib.

Livestock farmers have may have actually faired better than in many years past due to the pandemic. COVID-19 infections in meat processing plants across the nation led to the idling of multiple meat processing plants and a sharp increase in the cost of meat, but it also increased the demand for locally-produced meat.

“They’re busier than ever because the public is concerned about a good steady food supply,” said Isleib of farmers who produce meat and animals to sell locally.

Unlike their meat-producing counterparts, local farmers who raise cattle to produce dairy products have been hit hard by the pandemic. Milk is distributed through different channels based on the end consumer, meaning milk to be sold to schools or other institutions can’t easily be diverted to grocery store shelves, regardless of the demand. In practice, that led to milk shortages on shelves despite many farmers being unable to sell their product.

“The dairy industry really hurt for awhile. They’ve been hurting anyway, so that was an extra hard blow for our farmers that milk cows,” said Isleib.

Dairy is only a small part of the agricultural landscape, however Isleib said the majority of dairy production in the peninsula takes place in Delta and Menominee Counties.

Isleib said the affects of the COVID-19 pandemic vary widely, and how the pandemic effected business really depends on which farmers you’re speaking with.

“The full-time farmers, they work on their farms. So their daily activities haven’t changed as much as many others. If you worked at a restaurant or a nursing home or something like that, it’s been topsy-turvy, but for farmers, their day-to-day routine pretty much has stayed the same,” he said.

Regardless of the pandemic, Isleib was quick to note the independent and enterprising spirit of farmers — something he says he greatly admires.

“Our farmers are sharp business people, they have to be to be able to stay in the agriculture business. Not only do they have to be good at business, they have to be good mechanics, they have to be veterinarians, they have to be plant scientists — they have an amazing skill set,” he said.

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