Bill Moroni will tell you it was a good year to be a corn producer in northeastern Louisiana. Planting began on schedule. Rains fell plentifully. Insect and disease pressure was low, and the brunt of September hurricanes mostly bypassed the region.
With those weather conditions it’s no surprise yields were good. Moroni would not disclose his family farm average, but he said the 2021 corn crop was one of the best ever.
“We’re very pleased,” said Maroni, who farms with his brother, Ken in Franklin Parish, La. Son, Mike, has also recently joined the farm, and oldest son Mark farms his own ground nearby.
“The weather was strange for our area but ideal for good corn yields,” he continued. “We got started when we like to start around March 10. We had a good run, got everything planted timely, and then it rained all year long. It practically eliminated the need for supplemental irrigation. We generally water five to 12 times per year. We watered 1.5 times this year. We had plenty of rainfall, and that made for good yields particularly on sandy soils.”
Bo Haring, who manages The Andersons grain elevator in nearby Wisner, La., has talked with many happy corn growers from across the region. While Louisiana corn yield averages typically hover around 180 bu/a, he’s heard from several growers shelling upwards of 200 bu/a across their fields.
“Before harvest began, you thought it was a good crop, but when the combines hit the fields and the numbers started coming in, everyone was amazed,” added Haring. “This is probably one of the best corn crops these guys have seen in the last 10 years and maybe ever.”
“It’s rare that we get to have good yields and good prices in the same year, but corn was great, and soybeans are looking good, too,” said Haring.
Corn is king in La.
Over the past 15 years, there has been a sharp trend away from cotton and to grains in Louisiana. USDA statistics show growers there planted nearly 600,000 acres of corn and more than 1 million acres of soybeans in 2021 compared to just over 100,000 acres of cotton.
To add perspective, this year there were as many acres planted to cotton in Kansas as Louisiana, according to USDA.
“When I came to the area 30 years ago there were at least 12 cotton gins in the parish. Now there are two. The agricultural landscape has completely changed,” said Carol Pinnell-Alison, LSU AgCenter Extension agent for Franklin Parish, which is now the top corn producing parish in the state. Franklin Parish growers planted more than 90,000 acres of corn in 2021.
The transition to grain has had infrastructure running to catch up. The Andersons own five grain elevators in the northeastern portion of the state. Haring said the Wisner elevator handled 7 million bushels of corn this year — up 1 million bushels from 2020. Louisiana is home to one of the largest outdoor grain pile storage pods in the U.S., according to Haring. It holds more than 3.1 million bushels of corn and is completely full.
“Maybe we could have fit another half a truck in it,” said Haring with a smile.
When we met with Haring in mid-September, corn harvest was winding down, but soybean harvest had not yet begun in earnest. Already it had been a hectic year. With an inverse market, more producers were selling on September futures and delivering during harvest.
“On our biggest day this year we took in 440,000 bushels of corn. It’s amazing the volume we can handle, but infrastructure still has some catching up to do,” he said. “When you have farmers running a combine with a 12-row header and growing 200+ bu/a corn you fill up quickly.”
On-farm grain storage in the area is increasing. Even with an inverse in the market, Haring said he had customers put in grain bins this year.
“It really didn’t pay to store corn this year, but they’re looking down the road. We’ve become a grain producing area.”
Moroni family farm
For the Moroni family, the transition to grain happened years ago. They were one of the first farms to grow corn on a large scale in the area, starting in the 1980s. They are now a 100% corn operation.
“My father, Bill Moroni, Sr., and uncles, John and Bob, moved here from Missouri in the 1960s, because land was cheap and available,” Moroni said. “When I was a teenager, my dad had 3,000 acres of soybeans that weren’t paying the bills, so he decided to try corn.”
“I can remember the first year we had corn we had a three-row corn header on a 105 combine, and they took turns riding on top of the cab watching it,” Moroni recalls. “They started with less than 100 acres of corn, and it grew from there.”
Today, the Moroni farm features substantial on-farm storage and drying capacity. The Moroni brothers load out corn almost every day of the year — selling most of their crop off the farm to an end user that feeds dairy and beef cattle and sacks deer corn for Walmart.
Bill says grain storage is vital to the success of marketing and selling quality corn, but he cautions young growers that with this crop it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of endless growth.
“When we decided to plant more corn, we had to have a bigger dryer. You get a bigger dryer you have to have a bigger combine so you can move more corn. Then you have to have more trucks. You get more trucks; you need more storage. It’s a never-ending cycle. Having the maturity to stay where you are comfortable and can make a good living instead of focusing on constantly getting bigger can save a lot of stress.”
Despite excellent yields and good prices, 2021 was not a year without challenges for the Moronis and other northeast Louisiana grain producers. Hurricane damage to infrastructure near the mouth of the Mississippi River caused delays and lost opportunity as barge traffic was shut down.
“Most of the corn grown in this area goes to chicken feed mills in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi, but with this being an export year, we loaded a lot of barges,” Haring said. “The river shutting down hurt us some, but fortunately we were able to adapt and load trains down to Mexico to free up space.”
On the farm level, growers had difficulty getting herbicides, and due to shortages of parts, equipment break downs took longer to repair. Input costs have risen drastically and are causing concern as farmers begin to plan for the next crop season.
Also, the ongoing COVID pandemic made an already shaky labor situation worse. Fortunately, for the Moronis, labor in the form of relatives is plentiful. Moroni is one of four sons. He’s the father of four sons, too. (Mark, Brian, Cody and Mike).
“We’re fortunate to have my kids and my brother’s son, Chase, who are working on the farm. Even those who work off the farm, come back and pitch in when we need them,” Moroni said. “It’s really helpful to have people you can depend on.”
“When I first started out, my dad told me farming is a good way to make a living while keeping your family around you. That’s probably the best part of farming,” Moroni added.
Of course, a year of good weather, outstanding yields and complimentary prices is a pretty good part of farming, too.