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Harvest brings good news to Louisiana farm partnership

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Ben Guthrie, farm manager for Balmoral Farming Partnership in Newellton and St. Joseph, Louisiana, farms cotton, corn, and soybeans.
From COVID-19 to hurricane season, a Louisiana farmer discusses some of the major challenges faced in 2020.

In spite of COVID-19 and major weather events, the 2020 harvest has brought some good news for Delta farmers. Several say they have had an excellent harvest.

Ben Guthrie, farm manager for Balmoral Farming Partnership in Newellton and St. Joseph, Louisiana, is one farmer who says the harvest has gone well. Balmoral Farming Partnership farms about 13,000 acres of cotton, corn, and soybeans.

"We have grown wheat on occasion, but most years we like to be about a third each of cotton, corn, and soybeans," Guthrie said. "However, because of the depressed cotton market lately, we've added more soybeans to the mix, and our corn acres are pretty static at about 4,000 to 5,000 acres."

Guthrie has been back on the farm since 2002.

"The farm is a partnership, but I'm the fifth generation in my family involved with this farm," he said. "Historically, in the seventies, we were mainly a cattle operation. The farm had about 5,000 head of cows, and later the land was cleared for row crops. From the mid-eighties to the late nineties, we were growing just about all cotton."

The farm converted more acres to irrigation and started planting more corn and soybean.

"The other row crops have difficulty competing with irrigated corn here in the south Delta," he said.

Hurricane season: Delaying harvest

In 2020, seven tropical storms, Cristobal, Marco, Laura, Sally, Beta, Delta, and, most recently, Zeta, were predicted to hit Louisiana. Two of the most notable hurricanes, Laura and Delta, left a trail of damage in parts of the state.

"We got a combined 10 inches of rain from Hurricane Laura and Hurricane Delta," Guthrie said. "We were fortunate that it only paused harvest for us.

"We were able to get everything out before Hurricane Delta except for some soybeans, which was a concern with the Mississippi River being so close. The river floods some fields every spring, and we were late planting some of our soybeans in mid-July, which is borderline of being too late."

Guthrie and his team planned to harvest the late-planted soybeans the last couple of weeks of October.

"The corn harvest went smoothly as well as most of the soybean harvest," he said.

Despite the rain and adverse weather, the soybeans harvested before Hurricane Delta had little to no damage.

"There wasn't much of a problem with the cotton harvest either," he said. "Because of reduced cotton acres, we were able to get it picked faster than normal. There were hiccups and stops along the way, but we were able to get everything out timely."

Farming during a pandemic

COVID-19 added new challenges to an industry that experiences its fair share. Besides the threat of illness, getting shipments on time was also a concern in the spring of 2020.

"It has been a challenging year from the word go," Guthrie said. "From COVID-19 to rainy weather during planting season, it's been a challenging year overall."

Fortunately, of the several of Guthrie's team were tested for the virus, only a few were confirmed positive in the summer, and no one experienced extreme symptoms.

"The main challenge the virus brought us was in shipping corn to feed mills since the mills were shut down in the spring," he said. "The shutdown delayed us getting our 2019 corn out before spring planting, which stretched us a bit thin. We needed people planting, but instead, we were hauling and shipping corn. It further constrained a process that's already constrained."

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Despite the rain and adverse weather, the soybeans harvested before Hurricane Delta had little to no damage.

Planting and pigweeds

The farm's corn crop was planted timely in the middle of March, but soybean planting was interrupted by rain.

"We like to start planting soybeans around April 10," Guthrie said. "We started planting about April 13, but several big rain events delayed planting about a we finished up mid-May with most of the planting."

For the later-planted soybeans, yields were affected some compared to those planted early.

"We didn't have any major concerns during the summer months," he said. "We irrigated some, but we mostly had timely rains. The dryland yields were good, as were the irrigated land.

"Pigweed, or Palmer amaranth, is always a nuisance, but we were able to use Dicamba this year before the rules changed on the product. Dicamba has been a game-changer for our farm."

Thanks to Dicamba the fields are clean of pigweeds.

"In years before Dicamba, fields would be a grownup mess, but it's allowed us to better farm fields that experience a lot of pigweeds," Guthrie said.

"There are other technologies to take care of the weeds, but they're not available in the germplasm that farmers are planting. Our soybeans have the Liberty Link gene, which is another key component, but we need every tool we have access to help control it."

Conservation: Land stewardship

Conservation practices are an important part of conserving the integrity of the land.

"We have a cereal rye cover crop in some fields that we planted after the corn harvest," Guthrie said. "We also have an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) contract with USDA NRCS.

"As a part of the Van Buren Watershed Project, we are working to reduce the sediment load in the bayou here. We also are letting some unproductive areas for row crops grow back into woodland areas. We're doing as much as we can on the conservation end of things to be good stewards of our land.”

Every year offers its own unique set of challenges in the farming industry.

"This year's main challenge was COVID-19," Guthrie said. "From parts availability and shipping being slowed down, at times, we wondered whether we were going to receive the load of fuel we ordered when we needed it most. Even so, we kept busy farming. All's well that ends well. The last leg of the 2020 farming season ended well, and we're looking forward to moving on to next year."

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