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View From the Cab
By Pamela Smith
Friday, July 31, 2020 12:00PM CDT

DECATUR, Illinois (DTN) -- Ryan Jenkins isn't sure he's the right person in the family to answer a question about striking a proper life and work balance.

"I know my wife, Debra, would like to travel more," said the Jay, Florida, farmer. "But, honestly, I have a hard time feeling comfortable leaving the farm during the growing season."

Reid Thompson and his wife, Heather, talk often about whether they are farming to live or living to farm. "I definitely try to look at the farm as my job," said the Colfax, Illinois, farmer. "But it's a lot easier to talk about taking time away from the business than it is to do it.

"My family definitely comes first," he added. "But part of putting them first also means making sure this farm is successful. Perhaps the most important thing is we aren't afraid to talk about these topics and can do it without getting defensive."

This week Jenkins and Thompson wade into the delicate subject of life balance and weigh in on how the crops look in the respective regions. The farmers are participating in DTN's View From the Cab series, a weekly installment that considers crop conditions and various aspects of life on the farm. This is the 14th installment of the series, which will run through harvest.

Both farmers figure that they could spend every available hour and then some in the sprayer or shop or behind the desk catching up on paperwork. There's always another something that can be done -- even if the crop isn't quite as needy as it hits midstride in the production season.

COVID-19 has also put an unusual twist to the question of balance this year. With many organized activities canceled, immediate families have been thrust together more than ever. Still, does together mean togetherness? Distancing restrictions have tossed many a family vacation plan out the window. Even grabbing a quick dinner out or any kind of spontaneous break from the routine of work can be complicated.

One antidote to the current social uncertainties may be to simply take the family for a drive -- even if it is to view the crop. DTN Senior Analyst Todd Hultman noted that this week's USDA-NASS good-to-excellent ratings for both corn and soybeans increased from 69% of the crop to 72%. "This historically high crop rating for this time of year suggests record yields for both crops.

"Obviously, there is still time for weather to influence yields, especially in soybeans where pods will be filling soon. There are several areas of dissent, such as western Iowa where drought is a concern. However, if USDA's latest ratings are close to accurate, crops are on their way to a big harvest this fall," Hultman said.

Cotton is a little less certain as USDA bestowed a good-to-excellent rating of 49% this week, down from 61% a year ago. However, peanuts were pegged at 74% good to excellent, up from 70% a year ago. Florida, which rates among the largest peanut-producing states, is showing a 82% good to excellent rating.

Read on to learn what's happening in Thompson and Jenkin's farming worlds:

REID THOMPSON -- COLFAX, ILLINOIS

A golf outing to support the McLean County Farm Bureau Foundation was still a go this week -- one of the first events since the confusion of COVID-19. Reid Thompson welcomed an excuse not to head to the field with the sprayer -- although he wasn't sure if it was the prospect of a round of golf, or the promise of grilled rib eyes for lunch or just seeing someone he's not related to that was the biggest lure.

Like many, Thompson is feeling a bit out of practice with social encounters these days.

"Farming is a profession where you spend 90% of your time with the same people. Suddenly, many of the things we used to be able to do to take our mind off the growing season -- like an occasional night out with friends -- are most gone, at least temporarily.

"It's not that we go out a lot, but options suddenly feel limited and life more unsure," he admitted.

For example, the Thompson toddlers are back in daycare, but the facility hours are shortened due to COVID-19. Some days that rearranges when and who drops the kids. Heather works full time as the digital communications manager for GROWMARK Inc.

The future of what daycare and school will look like going forward is also being hotly debated in the state, Thompson noted.

"When uncertain, we are often told to focus on things we can control. At least with farming, we have no shortage of ways to make ourselves feel as if we are moving forward because there's no shortage of work to do. The key -- or perhaps the challenge -- is to not to sacrifice everything else along the way," he said.

Fortunately, although the 2020 crop season has had a few early weather hiccups for Thompson, the year has not been a repeat of 2019. On Monday, he had just a few days of soybean fungicide application left before parking the sprayer for the season.

April-planted corn was looking "very good" with some variability in fields where water stood too long or washed out patches.

"We are seeing some nitrogen stress in fields where we applied nitrogen in late June or early July when we had some extreme heat," he said.

On average though, he's seeing ear counts of 80% to 90% of planted.

"Everything I've seen so far indicates we are heads and tails above where we were in 2019 and probably close to five-year average yields," he said.

Nighttime temperatures had been a concern, but Thompson said most of his corn entered pollination as those steamy nights were coming to an end. "The ears I've pulled so far appear normal size -- 16 to 18 kernels around and 30 to 40 kernels in length.

"Pollination appears to have gone well, but we'll see what the next 10 days or so brings. Our earliest corn is right at dough stage with a forecast of rain and daytime temperatures of 80 degrees and 60 degrees at night.

"Unless something goes totally sideways, I think we're looking at a good grain fill period with limited kernel abortion. But again, it's going to be hard to evaluate a field because there is stand variability due to ponding."

April-planted soybeans look fantastic, Thompson said. "Some are waist tall, but they are podded from top to bottom. In fact, I'm afraid we're going to miss a few because they are podded an inch off the ground in places.

"Planting in April helped, but we also went to a different plate to help singulate our beans better -- which is better compared to the controlled spill that we've had the past several years. Even our May beans are filled with flowers. I've never seen beans flower as I have this year," he said.

More complicated herbicide programs, split-season nitrogen applications on corn, preventative fungicide applications on corn and soybeans, and more crop scouting are all part of the central Illinois worksheet. It's not quite like baling hay all summer, but these days the chore list is long when the crop is intensely managed.

"I'm not going to lie -- I'm a little burned out on running the sprayer right now," Thompson said. "We operate a small crew -- mostly just Dad and myself. There's only so many hours and days to get things done. So, we work extra hard so we can take those important days off to be with family.

For safety reasons, he prefers not to take his young sons to the field. "That time will come when they are a bit older," he said.

"Right now, we're focusing on things that are fun for them -- fishing and ice cream runs, for example. Everything doesn't have to be about farming."

RYAN JENKINS -- JAY, FLORIDA

Rain was in the forecast for Ryan Jenkins, but the Jay, Florida, farmer was hoping it would hold up and dry up long enough to get fungicide treatments out on peanuts this week.

"In this country, you do not want to discourage a good rain. We're always one week away from a drought," he said. "But I also really try to never be late on fungicide treatments -- you asked about life balance and this is one big reason it is hard to leave a crop in the summer. Being timely requires being here because our weather is so variable."

There's a long list of plant diseases that target peanuts. On Jenkins's radar this time of year is leaf spot and white mold. Frequent rainfall accompanied by warm temperatures and canopy closure are the perfect storm to fuel early-season outbreaks of white mold.

In past years, Jenkins said he would likely average seven to eight fungicide applications in the peanut crop each season. However, this year he's anticipating a total of four fungicide applications. New post products have much longer spray intervals compared to older compounds, he noted.

This year, Jenkins applied a growth regulator to about 300 acres of peanuts to control growth of foliage. It is a relatively new concept on this crop that had proven valuable in on-farm test plots over the past few years.

"It's expensive, but with the rains we've had, we hope it will direct the plant's energy to growing peanuts rather than leaves. It should also help control plant disease and ultimately, a yield bump," he said.

"We're also trying to keep cotton from growing too much by applying growth regulators. Scouting is underway for plant bugs and stink bugs.

If conditions weren't so wet, he'd probably be picking corn this week. The crop is testing around 21% to 23% moisture.

"Right now, the corn ground is so wet that it is hard to stand up out there. Our soils dry fairly quickly, so we might get at it late this week. On the other hand, we also have about a 30% chance of a rain every given day of the week," he said.

When he starts shelling corn, stinkbugs will make a run for cotton and peanut fields. "They don't really hurt peanuts that much, but they will hurt cotton. The same thing happens when we dig peanuts, the stinkbugs leave there and head to cotton again," he said.

There isn't much corn grown in Florida, but Jenkins likes to experiment and learn from the crop. It also means he keeps corn-harvesting equipment on hand -- in addition to harvesting gear for soybeans, wheat, peanuts and cotton.

"There aren't many farmers around here that have a corn head, so I pick up some custom jobs," he said.

Jenkins Farms headquarters sits about 25 miles from the family home. The commute provides Jenkins time to return calls, plan and think each workday. It also means when he does get home, he can generally put some distance between work and home.

Sons Cole and Chase, who are in college and high school, help in the operation when available. "I have a good amount of together time with the boys, and I think we do a good job of having family meals, which is important," he said.

However, what he worries about is making sure he spends enough time with his wife and his sons in ways they also enjoy. "It was a little easier when the boys were playing travel baseball. We had a built-in reason to pick up and go," he said.

The family RV hasn't been put to use for a few years and even finding time to head to the Gulf for an afternoon on the family boat has become less frequent as lives get sidetracked with other things.

"I don't know why I resist leaving the farm so much. I love spending time with Debra and the boys. I've got to work harder at understanding the world will not stop spinning if I leave for a few days," Jenkins said.

Part of the reluctance comes with planning ahead, he admitted. "For example, we love to go to Auburn to a football game, but I prefer to go when it is too wet to work, or we're caught up with work. Unfortunately, some things require more planning than that."

He and his wife met while working outside of agriculture in the medical field. Debra still works in nursing.

"One thing we forget sometimes is farming does bring some flexibility that other jobs don't offer. I can and do quit when we have a family activity where I'm needed. I couldn't always do that when working in the medical profession," he noted.

Making a decision to go into farming full time after having another career also brings important perspective to the job of farming and to the marriage, Jenkins said.

"I know my wife is behind me 100% and proud of what we do. She sits on the county Farm Bureau board with me and is so supportive. But she has her own job that is separate from the farm. It contributes health insurance and financial stability for our family. I respect and appreciate all she does for us.

"I'm not sure there is a perfect balance in all these things. The goal is just to keep trying and learning," he said.

Pamela Smith can be reached at Pamela.smith@dtn.com

Follow her on Twitter @PamSmithDTN


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