By Jim Offner, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa
Last week's gradual upward drift in daytime temperatures returned a much-welcomed amber hue and waves of cornstalk nubs to the Iowa farm landscape.
It was a stark reminder that growers are turning their thoughts to the upcoming planting season.
The frostbitten agriculture economy has been well-noted in forecasts of slower heavy equipment sales and grain prices that some say will struggle to maintain break-even levels this year.
Prevailing economic winds swirling around the industry may not be favorable, but farmers can't complain about the weather patterns that have swept across the region over the winter months, according to Elwynn Taylor, a renowned climatologist from Iowa State University.
Taylor stopped in at the recent Hawkeye Farm Show at the UNI-Dome to provide an outlook on the upcoming season. More than 200 growers from the region packed a conference room to hear Taylor, who's avuncular persona and science-based insights convey an entertaining balance of insight and wisdom.
Before his talk, he was asked for some predictions for 2015.
He said growers already had passed relatively unscathed through the first annual obstacle: winter.
The area is finishing up a relatively mild off-season, with fewer than half of the number of Polar Vortex episodes -- and their waves of sub-zero temperatures -- that had swamped the region over the previous winter.
"Rather than nine Polar Vortex events that we had last year that caused us lots of trouble, we've had four this year -- that's more like it, but it's still kind of winterish," Taylor said in customary understatement.
Iowa farmers had the luck of geography this year, Taylor noted.
The East Coast took the brunt of winter this year, thanks to an unusual phenomenon called the Texas Clipper.
"It originates in the Texas Panhandle, but because of the cold of this winter, has put a front right along the Texas Panhandle over toward the Ohio River Valley and the trouble has come that direction," Taylor said.
What that will do to the Midwest as the growing season gets underway, nobody knows, Taylor said.
"We haven't had to live with this before," he said.
What should growers expect, compared to last year?
"We started off generally in most of the state of Iowa with all the subsoil moisture that the soil can hold; that's a good thing," Taylor said. "The topsoil can be changed with the wind and sun and a little bit of rain."
Subsoil is a difference-maker as growers head into the upcoming season, and this year, it is providing a hint of good things to come, Taylor said.
"The year it looks most like is 2009, which turned out to be a record high crop yield," he said.
Taylor interjected a quick caveat: "I'm not anticipating we'll have a record high crop yield, but at least we're starting out that way."
Whether growers will get an early jump on planting -- usually, the first activity stirs in April -- remains an unanswered question, Taylor said.
The climatologist is known for entertaining crowds with a folksy style that brings welcome flavor to a topic that can be as dry as a teetotalers' picnic.
Some of Taylor's observations sound as if he'd plucked them from the Farmer's Almanac, and he didn't disappoint this time, when he was asked about winter signs that might provide some indicators for what kind of planting season to expect.
"A lot of folks noticed that we had some fog in January, and fog in January, by folklore, means a wet spring," he said.
It's easy to dismiss those kinds of observations, but that would be a mistake, Taylor said.
"There's some sense to that folklore, by the way," he said. "Where does the fog come from? The Gulf of Mexico, and that's where most of our wetness comes. If it starts in January with bringing the fog, it may be out of control by planting time. So, we've got a little bit of apprehension of what will spring bring, but we always do. There's at least one hint that we may have more moisture than we want at planting time."
The early signs point to a corn yield "above the trend" this year, Taylor said. Soybean predictions will have to wait until the summer unfolds, of course.
So, the cycle continues. Winter is abating, and the planting season approaches.
There's a sense of comfort to be found there.
If only markets were as easy to predict.