WILLMAR, Minn. — Hemp is creating big chatter with Minnesota farmers these days. But not yet for Kirby Hettver, a DeGraff, Minn. farmer and past president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association. 2019 was not a good year for any crop in most Minnesota farming area and that includes hemp.
Interviewed at the MCGA Pre-Resolution’s Meeting in Willmar, Minn. on Dec. 4, Hettver said, “We looked at (hemp) for our operation; but at this stage, too many risks which we can’t mitigate. Not only growing the crop, but processing, delivery and most important, revenue. Marketing appears the issue. But I’ll admit the potential for the crop with all its many uses does make it intriguing. Big thing now is CBD oil. Looking at industrial options down the road might make hemp a more scalable crop. There needs to be a lot of settling within the industry. There’s no doubt we can figure out how to grow the crop. The struggles are harvesting and where is the market place?”
But Hettver is always ready to talk corn. So this question for starters: What’s the breakeven for corn going to be in 2020 — especially if you struggle with wet fields again next spring?
“We farmers are an optimistic bunch,” Hettver replied. “As we make plans for 2020, we have to assume we’ll get our crop planted. So at this stage we’re proceeding with the usual plans of getting our crops in the ground. But I am worried some of the prevent plant acres from this year will be repeated for next year. Too many guys I talk with who did prevent plant last year, and tried for a hay crop or a cover crop for better soil health, couldn’t even get their prevent plant ground worked this fall. Still too wet. There’s a realistic shot we could be facing the same challenge next spring.”
How do you read the mood of farmers these days? Are some reconsidering an earlier departure from farming because of continuing market uncertainties?
“That’s obviously an individual decision, but we’re starting to see what I think will be a big transition in the next few years,” Hettver said. “Lots of guys out there who have done a phenomenal job building their farm over the years. But if they don’t have a transition plan, like a child ready to take over, they’re beginning to think this isn’t fun anymore. What are my options?”
Hettver is already underway with transition planning. “We’re just completing that with the generation before my brother and I. So hopefully we’ll get that paperwork done in the next 6 to 9 months. Hopefully I’ve got 20 years left, but it’s time now to start developing for that next transition.”
How does Hettver look at the 2020 crop year? “It’s too easy to second-guess yourself,” he admitted. “Some years forward pricing worked good; some years it didn’t. We’re trying to maintain some consistency in how much we pre-price. We use our crop insurance as a gauge. When we see the market giving us opportunity we’ll make sales up to that point. Hopefully the over-production above our APH will let us play a little bit more with those bushels. But the bottom line for us: consistency in our marketings.”
The Hettvers do not own shares in an ethanol plant, so pre-determined corn deliveries aren’t in their play book. “But we deliver a lot of our corn to end users,” he said. “We have the benefit of selling some of our corn crop directly as forage to some of the nearby dairies. We also have a haylage market with these operations. So what doesn’t get fed to livestock, a large part of our yearly production goes to the ethanol market.”
There’s an added benefit of selling to a big dairy operation. A lot of the manure from that dairy farm gets back to Hettver farmland. “We do our best to work with the dairies to match our needs up with theirs. That means coming up with a plan each year that works for both of us. We try to be flexible. And that can mean flexing in alfalfa acres, silage acres to best meet their needs as well.”
Are cover crops included in this overall strategy? Yes, indeed. Hettver simply said, “We’re committed to improving the overall health of our soils and cover crops are part of that process. On our prevent plant acres this year we used cover crops. In fact they are still out there. We will strip till those fields in the spring when or if the fields are fit. Then we will plant corn. But we’re looking at some of the research, the innovation grant stuff that Minnesota Corn Growers is funding, specifically to see how we can do in-season seeding of cover crops.”
“I’ve had the good fortune of sitting in on some committees with cover crop experts. That simply helps. There’s not much of that being done in our area. But being able to talk with someone who has done it already and who is willing to share the strategies to make it work is very important to me.”
Yes, biofuels, ethanol and ongoing controversies over the oil industry not fulfilling their obligations are predictable chatter at any meeting of corn growers. And now electric cars and their impact on future ethanol sales are included. So I asked Hettver, Is your wife going to talk you into buying an electric car for her?
He chuckled, “She’s much more into biofuels because she understands how much that product impacts us and our commitment and 24,000 Minnesota corn farmers to the Minnesota corn industry producing food, feed and fuel.”
In fact, Hettver had some issues discussing the ramifications of electric power for America’s auto industry. “I think the day that happens is when my wife and I decide retirement is where we’re at and we may not be located in a rural area — such as a metro area — where our annual mileage isn’t what it is out here in rural Minnesota.”
So will electric cars never be in the Hettver lifestyle? “Never say never,” he cautioned, “but it’s not likely until/if we move to a city.”
How will the wanna-be younger folks find a way into production agriculture?
“It’s going to be tough,” replied Hettver. “I touched on the big transition likely to happen with older farmers getting out of agriculture. The capital costs of getting into farming for some of these younger people will be the biggest roadblock. It’s prohibitive to a lot of younger people who might want to enter into farming.”
Is niche-farming going to be a bigger factor? Are small farming operations just producing some meats, or eggs and vegetables for local families more likely? “The market is there because the demand is in place, and likely to be growing,” Hettver acknowledged. “But we’re going to let the consumer decide if that niche needs to grow or not.”