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“A lot of crap has gone down” for Iowa farmer, but it’s finally harvest time

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April Hemmes on her farm in 2019.

"I had 8 inches of rain the whole growing season when I was supposed to have 22 normally," says farmer April Hemmes. Ben Hethcoat/Marketplace

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It’s harvest season for Iowa corn and soybean farmers, including April Hemmes in Franklin County. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal last checked in with Hemmes in April, when corn and soybeans sold for double the price of a few months earlier. But Hemmes has dealt with extreme drought and frost damage since then. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: How have you been? It’s been a while since we’ve chatted. Are things all right?

April Hemmes: Yeah, it’s been … a lot of crap has gone down. I had to replant 80% of my soybeans because it frosted off. I started harvest, and then we’ve been in extreme drought the whole year.

Ryssdal: Sorry, hold on. There’s a lot in there. Can we back up to replant the soybeans? How does that even work?

Hemmes: So, you know how we farmers love to sit in tractors? May 29 or 30, we got pretty cold. Not hard frost, but enough to kill my soybeans. And they had been in the ground a month, so I had to get more soybeans and go back out and replant most of them that frosted off in the low-lying areas and stuff.

Ryssdal: And obviously, that’s gonna cost you money, right?

Hemmes: Oh, yeah, it cost me money. We have insurance to cover, like, gas, you know, and then usually the seed companies will give you replant seed. But it’s not, you know, it’s not what I wanted. It’s not what I had planted. But anyway, it’s mostly time in the tractor, but it’s still at a cost.

Ryssdal: Yeah, let me back out of the tractor for a minute and talk big picture. A couple of things: No. 1, given the drought and the freeze and the heat and the flooding — I haven’t ever asked you about climate change, and I wonder where that ranks on your list of things that keep you up at night?

Hemmes: So, I am a farmer that says, “Yes, things have changed.” Does it keep me up at night? No. Because, well, my crop depends on the weather. So we’re coming out of an extreme drought this year. I had 8 inches of rain the whole growing season when I was supposed to have 22 normally, and then end of August we started getting rain. Actually, I’m not out in the fields today because we got rain this morning. So, um —

Ryssdal: Sorry, wait, you can’t farm in the rain? What?

Hemmes: No.

Ryssdal: You don’t have, like, windshield wipers on the combines? That’s a kind of serious question.

Hemmes: No, I know. So I have two rules with windshield wipers: Never plant with the windshield wiper on and never harvest with the windshield wiper on. Because bad things happen. You plug up a planter with mud, and then combine, the silks on the corn get wet and then they plug the sieve up, and then I’m talking farmer now.

Ryssdal: All right, big-picture topic No. 2 — China, global trade, access to that market. I mean, where does that stand now for you and sort of bigger picture for the rest of your industry?

Hemmes: Exactly. It’s still very frustrating because what people forget is that the tariffs are still on there. And they’re not negotiating. They’re not doing anything unless they’re doing something that they’re not telling the rest of us. But well, you know, that’s the frustrating part.

Ryssdal: But wait, I mean, look, you’ve been around the block a couple of times, you know people. Iowa’s not that big a place. The secretary of agriculture happens to be a former governor of the state of Iowa, Secretary [Tom] Vilsack. You could probably get him on the phone

Hemmes: Oh yeah, yeah, I have direct dial. No, I don’t. I’ve been on several Zoom meetings with he and Ambassador [Katherine] Tai lately.

Ryssdal: The trade representative, yeah.

Hemmes: Right. Yeah. And then their focus, their question to us as a seed committee for trade was, “How can we get labor into the trade deals?” And you know, that’s very frustrating, because it’s got nothing to do with trade, so, you know, we need to know a plan from them, what they really want. And then you can start moving on.

Ryssdal: And you’re not getting that. Here we are eight or whatever it is months into this administration, you’re not getting it.

Hemmes: I don’t feel I’m getting it. Yeah, no, not at all.

Ryssdal: All right, I’ll let you go but last question: What do farmers do when it rains if they can’t, you know, farm?

Hemmes: Well, we drive our Rolls-Royces, of course. OK, I had to get that in there, Kai. Last time I was on there, our prices had gone well — double, remember? They’re down a bit, but actually my soybeans are coming out better than I thought they would, and my corn is a little more disappointing than I thought it would.

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