How does our farm decide what to plant?

I’m tackling a few farming basics on my blog these next few weeks, for a variety of reasons: 1) spring still hasn’t showed up, delaying my ability to be outside and getting some of these very same things done, 2) search terms leading people to my blog are letting me know that there are a lot of these types of questions out there, and 3) I just so happen to have recorded some radio spots that answered these questions.

I decided to tackle our planting decisions as the first in this series. Why? Because with the late spring, our decisions may be changing rapidly. But in order for you to understand the process, I’ll start at the beginning and walk you through it all.

The next year’s season begins as we’re taking the crop off. (Actually, the plans are in the works for years before, but harvest kicks off the next planting cycle.) Boss Man has a general idea of what he would like to plant, where he plans on planting it, and what the soil conditions will need to be like in order to be successful.

combine, harvest

EJ, watching his Dad and Grandfather harvest a crop a few years ago. We have since upgraded from the Massey combines to green machines!

Shortly after the crop is off the field, our crop consultant performs soil tests to see where our soil stands, as far as nutrient needs and potential for the next spring. That’s how we find out what amenities we may need to apply, for example nitrogen, phosphorous, etc. It’s pretty scientific, but we can rely on the expertise of those around us. Kind of like taking kids to the doctor to see what’s wrong, but instead of our kids, it’s our soil we test.

Many times seed companies have discounts or incentives that make it worthwhile to purchase your seed early. That way they know what types of seed may be in demand the next year, etc., and they can better prepare for the coming spring as well.

Now, let me be clear with one thing. Although different companies may offer incentives, the decision lies solely with our farm.

I know that some believe that seed companies bully farmers or push them into making different decisions, but I have yet to encounter anything of the sort. In fact, most of the seed representatives in our area are local farmers themselves.

farm freebies

Freebies, such as the hat on Boss Man’s head, may seem like great perks…but they don’t play a role in the decisions we make.

On our farm, we diversify. We buy a variety of seed from a variety of places, and make decisions for the next year based on how the crop performed and the availability at the time that we order.

But that’s also all done in pencil…meaning it may change.

Take, for example, this spring. Here it is, the end of April. And we still have snow on the ground. The weather isn’t much above freezing. It doesn’t appear as if field work will happen any time soon. Before too long, some of the crop decisions that were made last fall, may end up being changed.

late spring in ND

A recent storm dumped an extra 20 inches of snow on us. It’ll be a few days before we can even think about planting anything!

Why is that?

Different crops are planted at different times, ensuring that they have a long enough growing season to fully mature before harvest. It’s similar to planning a garden. You know you can plant peas throughout the season. They grow fast and mature quickly. Yet, tomatoes are more finicky about their care and need more time to produce fruit.

corn plant

We do what we can to make sure our crops have the best change to produce a great crop!

The same is true for crops. Corn and wheat are planted earlier in the year. They need more time to mature. Soybeans can be planted later in the season. They grow more quickly and can perform very well with a later plant date. The same is true for all of the crops that farms grow. Each one is different, and the current conditions may change a farmer’s whole plan for the year.

So the next time you hear that one company or another controls a farmer’s decision on what they plant, you can let people know that you know that’s not true. The ultimate decision lies with the farm.

Well, actually, it’s a much higher power than that, but the farmer is the one whose name is on the dotted line.

7 thoughts on “How does our farm decide what to plant?

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  4. Very interesting information. Thank you. I was surprised not to see more on economics, beyond the cost of seed. I assume that some crops yield more $/acre than others. If so, how does that factor into your decision making? Actually, I had been wondering recently if economics wouldn’t ultimately force all farmers to grow the same crop, or if those same economics ultimately make all crops pay out at the same per acre rate.

    • Although economics does play into it, a lot of weight is put on what inputs would be needed to make the soil optimal, where the soil tests show the soil health is now, and what the long-term plan for that particular piece of ground may be. On our farm, we also take into consideration what our animals need as well. For example, we are sure to plant wheat, because the straw is what we use for bedding our animals all winter. We plant a different variety of corn for feed for our animals. And we make sure we have crops that mature at different times, so that our workforce isn’t overwhelmed. Although some crops may pay more per acre, there also may be a dramatic difference in input costs per acre for those crops. It all depends on how you have cared for your soil, the crop rotation you use and what the weather conditions have been like. There is no way we could all grow the same crop…and thankfully, our markets allow fluctuation to allow for those decisions to still be left in the farmer’s hands.

      Thanks for the questions! I’m more than happy to answer any others you may have…or clarify if I didn’t answer clearly.

      • Very interesting, indeed. Thank you for responding. Never mind that I grew up surrounded by farms and have been around them most of my life, I never paid much attention to what was going on. Lately, though, as I drive through farm country on my daily commute, I have enjoyed watching the crop cycles. This year I kept wondering when the farmers were going to plow and otherwise prepare their fields–it was getting late in the season, or so it seemed. Low and behold, corn starts growing up surrounded by last year’s stalks and this year’s weeds. Huh? So, I did some research. I had no idea that farmers have not be doing traditional plowing for decades. Then I got to wondering about the economics. Many fields had dwarf sunflowers last year, corn this year. If one pays more than the other, why change? That question led me to your site, as well as some other articles. It’s been interesting. Thanks again. Paul

  5. Thanks for the blog post and the follow-up question. I work on food security in the US in general, and I was thinking that if a state is going through water scarcity for example, or needs to reduce irrigation pumping in the area due to some regulation, would it ask/incentivize farmers to switch to less water-intensive crops for example, or would farmers themselves generally make a decision based on current conditions. In general, how much other factors (other than soil type, economics that is) such as irrigation, pumping cost, water scarcity play into crop planting decisions?

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