By Sandy K. Johnson

In mid-September, Meagan Kaiser and her husband would normally be close to harvesting their 5,000 acres of corn and soybeans. Not this year. Earlier in 2019, Mississippi River floods inundated their farm and they’ll be lucky to salvage 50 acres of soybeans and 100 acres of corn.

“We don’t have an income from the farm this year,” said the farmer from Bowling Green, Missouri. No harvest, no paycheck.

Kaiser was one of three farmers who shared their stories with National Press Foundation fellows, bringing to life the challenges of a livelihood reliant on Mother Nature. Kaiser is fortunate to have a fallback: a day job as a soil scientist and a soil sampling service co-owned with her husband. “We’re going to survive this year,” she said.

Their focus now is on getting their land ready for 2020, which means “re-learning” the soil, which was forever changed by the sand and silt deposited by the river. Kaiser’s soil scientist experience will be invaluable as they recover.

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Randy Leka is the manager of Grigsby Family Farms, which grows corn, soybeans, wheat and cover crops on 8,600 acres across two counties in Illinois. This fifth-generation farm is so big it has a board of directors.

Leka has worked for Grigsby for 30 years, leading an operation that is technologically advanced, using satellite imagery, drones and big data.

Leka is a believer in regenerative farming practices. Grigsby is transitioning 320 acres to organic. The farm also has two large swine confinement operations, with a capacity of 20,000 hogs a year; the manure will be used to fertilize the crops. And they plant cover crops to damp down weeds and nurture the soil, which he described as a living thing.

Leka said cover crops aren’t common. “It’s an up-front cost,” he said. “One more expense when you don’t know what the payback will be.”

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Sarah Frey grew up on a small farm in Illinois that was on the edge of bankruptcy, getting her first break at age 19 by negotiating a contract to deliver melons and other fresh produce to a nearby Walmart distribution center.

She parlayed that success into Frey Farms, which grows pumpkins, melons, sweet corn, tomatoes and other produce on 15,000 acres in seven states. Her clients are the nation’s largest grocery retailers.

Bothered that 20% of her melon crops went to waste – mostly because of cosmetic imperfections – she turned her ugly melons into delicious watermelon juice. (Did you know: Watermelon is 92% water but packed with vitamins A, B6 and C.)

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William and Tyler Mueth grew up on a farm in southwestern Illinois and now sell crop seed to their neighbors. They described the mind-boggling operating costs associated with farming. These costs are a snapshot of costs in southern Illinois; land prices and farm prices vary greatly across the U.S.

An acre of land (about the size of a football field) sells for $7,000-$10,000. A typical farm here is 1,500 acres. Seed costs: $100 an acre for corn and $60 an acre for soybeans. Fertilizer costs: $120-140 an acre for corn and $40-50 for soybeans. (This does not include farm labor costs, or pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or other inputs.)

Farm equipment costs: $350,000-$500,000 for a combine, $100,000-$150,000 for a tractor and $300,000 for a 24-row planter. Once the crop is harvested, farmers are captive to prices set at the buyer, which is typically a grain elevator within driving distance. Market prices fluctuate from year to year and crop to crop.