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View From the Cab
By Pamela Smith
Sunday, July 14, 2024 4:56AM CDT

NEW HAVEN, Ky. (DTN) -- Quint Pottinger's farmstead has a bird's-eye view of the rolling hills of central Kentucky.

From this lofty perch, the Abbey of Gethsemani rises in one direction and Log Still Distillery in another. Cattle and round hay bales dot distant pastures. Gleaming grain setups send reflective signals from neighboring farms and a patchwork of row crops stitch it all together.

The biggest field Pottinger farms -- 150 acres -- sits beneath it all, spread out in full view of the farmhouse. This year, the field is planted to corn. The vantage point is a great place to pause, take a deep breath and assess crop prospects. This year, the picture is anything but clear. A slow, wet start has the corn pollinating in the heat of summer and double-crop soybeans needing a drink sooner rather than later.

"When I see the hail, wind, flooding and other problems in other parts of the country, I know we're lucky to not have that. But we are hot and dry and will need moisture to keep this crop going," Pottinger said.

Dan Lakey understands the uncertainty. His crop has already endured a few whammies this year. In late June, he felt a glimmer of hope when a rain seemed to come in time to restore cereal crops hammered by a frost. Now, heat and dryness are also on his weather radar and the combination doesn't bode well, particularly for spring-planted crops.

Lakey and Pottinger are providing reports this year as part of DTN's View From the Cab project to discuss crop conditions and rural issues facing their farming regions. This week, in the 11th installment of the series, they talk about rural community and how it factors into long-range thinking for their farms.

Still, weather continues to be top of mind. Commodity prices being what they are, the uncertain conditions have both farmers questioning the financial wisdom of applying additional inputs, such as fungicide. Read on to learn more about what these farmers are facing and how it is influencing management decisions.

DAN LAKEY: SODA SPRINGS, IDAHO

Talk about a temperature rollercoaster. Nearly 2,500 acres Lakey farms were brown and questionable after temperatures plummeted into the low 20s Fahrenheit and high teens for about four hours on two consecutive mornings on June 17 and 18.

It didn't take long to thaw. This week soaring temperatures prompted the National Weather Service to put heat advisories in place Thursday through Saturday (July 11-13) for the area. This week Lakey was experiencing temperatures in the 90s F and with the mid-day temps edging toward triple digits.

DTN Meteorologist Teresa Wells said while a few isolated showers or storms may try to develop around the region this weekend, conditions will likely remain mostly dry for Soda Springs. "Much of next week will feature daily chances for afternoon and evening showers and storms. If the showers and storms are consistent enough each day, rainfall amounts could approach up to 0.10-0.25 inch for next week. However, if showers stay to the north and east, mostly dry conditions may prevail," she said.

Temperatures next week are expected again be above normal with high temperatures approaching the upper 80s to low 90s.

With farming operations spread in a 50-mile radius, the crop scenario is variable at best. Lakey said the freeze was widespread, but the life-giving rainfall that followed was not.

"When you get a rain, everything is unicorns and rainbows," said Lakey. "Unfortunately, we're finding that rain missed a lot of the farm and some of the worst frosted areas only received a tenth of an inch." The frost event also came when many farmers in the area were spraying herbicides, which put added stress on the crop, he noted.

Spring-planted crops seem to have suffered most. "Fortunately, our winter wheat was still mostly in the boot stage. I'm sure we'll see indications of frost when we're in the combine, especially down in the swells. But the heads are filling and I'm hoping the frost impact on winter crops will be minimal."

Hot days means starting work early. Lakey is out the door most days by 5 a.m. trying to get six or seven hours of work in before things start to cook. In recent days part of that chore is communicating the condition of the crop to the companies he supplies.

"We're letting them know the stage of the grain and alerting them to situations where that crop might be short. I'm not sure how much durum we'll have to harvest this year due to frost, for example," he said. "We aren't alone. There's a lot of durum contracted in this area and it all got hurt."

Lakey sees opportunity for his farm in these personalized relationships and specialty grain contracts. His arrangement with Shepherd's Grain, for example, requires meeting specifications for regenerative agricultural practices and working with third-party certification. That takes time, but the company is also investing in research and sharing information on topics like soil biology and how nutrient density of grain varies based on tillage methods.

The picture of his family and story about the farm on the bag of Shepherd's Grain flour ties the consumer and farmer together. That's a good feeling, Lakey said.

"I like people knowing that I care about how I grow that grain. Because I do care. It's more than just a commodity to me," he said.

Lakey lives in town in a subdivision surrounded by fields he tends. When he needs to spray a crop, he texts neighbors bordering those fields to make sure they understand what is being sprayed and why. He sees answering questions and giving explanations as part of his job.

He doesn't necessarily want to be thanked for doing that job, as some social media campaigns promote. Nor is he keen on the "farmers feed the world" mentality. He doesn't want to be called a producer or even a grower.

"I'm a farmer and proud of it," he said. If that sounds like it is splitting hairs, then so be it. Somewhere along the way agriculture as an industry strayed from its roots as processes became industrialized, he said. While he also sells into the commodity steam and understands the economics of volume, the model isn't a perfect fit for him.

"The industry has become focused on yield rather than producing something that nourishes the people buying it," he said. "I'd like to see that rebalance."

His wife, Marie, often mills their own grain and bakes with it. Lakey has thoughts of one day finding a way for the grains produced by the farm to be shared more directly with the local community -- through a mill or a bakery or both. Someday. Maybe.

Meanwhile, there's a lot of work to do to address the year at hand. One benefit of drought is disease pressure tends to disappear. Lakey had begun experimenting with some fungicide in trials this year. "But unless we start seeing rain, there's no reason to go out with a second pass," he said.

Grasshoppers are beginning to sniff out the dry conditions. He's considering the possibility of spraying by drone if they become bad. "They tend to start in the grass around field borders. A lot of times we can border spray to protect the whole field if we catch it on time," Lakey said.

Mormon crickets are also on his scouting list. "They are like grasshoppers on steroids. They are three to four times the size of grasshoppers and can devour entire plants. We don't usually get too many, but I also don't want them," he said.

But the biggest pest or crop eater for Lakey is cattle. He farms acreage that borders public ground managed by the Bureau of Land Management. In this state, he must fence and maintain fences along land (owned or leased) that borders range ground. It's also his responsibility for keeping grazing cows inside those fences.

Tender crops are too tempting at times. "People will often say that we work hard in the spring and fall, but what the heck do we do in the summer. At our place, there's always something to do.

"It seems like we are always chasing cows and fixing fence," he said.

QUINT POTTINGER: NEW HAVEN, KENTUCKY

The four-legged foe for Pottinger is deer. This week he was replanting some areas where deer devastated crop in hopes they'll eat the newly emerging crop and leave the rest when they return. Because they will return.

"It's just making us feel like we're doing something. We can't fence them out or keep them out. There's no deterrent that we've found that works," he said.

Pottinger's farming area received about a half inch of rainfall this week and he had close to an inch the week prior. While that's a blessing, roots are shallow this year because of frequent rainfall early in the season and he was hoping for a bigger drink.

The good news is most of the damaging winds that came with Hurricane Beryl skirted the New Haven area, noted Wells. Unfortunately, most of the rainfall also fell in surrounding areas.

Temperatures start to heat up again this weekend for Pottinger and could approach the mid to upper 90s by Monday and Tuesday. "While a few isolated showers or storms may try to develop through this weekend, conditions will likely remain on the drier side. It won't be until Wednesday and Thursday next week that the chances for scattered showers and storms will increase as a cold front works through the area. The cold front may finally push south by Friday and lend to drier conditions. Rainfall next week could approach 0.50-1 inch, but if heavy rainfall associated with strong thunderstorms goes directly over the area, rainfall totals could be higher," Wells said.

Some fungicide applications have been going out this week. For soybeans, Pottinger is hoping it will help them hold onto a few more pods. In corn, the threat of Southern rust is already a reality. The fungus spreads from the tropical south northward and when the disease was found in Georgia this week, Pottinger assumed Kentucky would soon be in the crosshairs.

He wasn't wrong -- Southern rust was detected in one nearby county this week and probable in another. High humidity and temperatures around 80 F create a supportive environment for Southern Corn Rust to thrive. Pottinger frequents the ipmPIPE website (https://corn.ipmpipe.org/…) to get an early look at what might be coming his way.

"We usually get most of these diseases late and we are typically at brown silk by the time they blow in. But this year our corn is late, so we're thinking it is a good time to protect it," he said. Northern corn leaf blight and gray leaf spot are other diseases that show up nearly every year. Tar spot is another disease that tends to show up after treatment period is over.

"We already had fungicide in paid inventory from a previous year. Were that not the case, I'd have to think hard about these applications in the current price environment. However, we need to use this up and it will be an interesting test to see if we get a yield bump," he said.

Pottinger likes to experiment with something new every year. This year it was relay intercropped soybeans. On March 30, soybeans were direct seeded into standing rye and a few acres of wheat. Some farmers achieve the practice by splitting the row or leaving a skip row, but the farm doesn't have reliable RTK guidance in the area to keep the planter lined up. Instead, interseeded soybeans were planted on a 15-to-20-degree angle to the already growing winter cereal crop. He was banking on the rye growing fast enough and soybeans staying small enough to make everything work.

"We're estimating that about 10% of the beans died after getting clipped at harvest. We wanted to avoid that, but we did have some loss. It could have been how far along they were in the reproductive stage," he said. "The rest appear to be coming on strong now they rye is off and already have pods." Pottinger said the beans that died were randomly distributed through the field. He's also testing fungicide on those intercropped soybeans to see if it helps in stress reduction.

The farm is doing a trial this year that they hope will give further clarity on the best way to plant double-crop soybeans. In another plot, they totally removed the rye straw and baled before double-cropping. In a third plot, the rye straw was left, and soybeans were no-tilled into standing stubble.

"We'll be comparing how many harvestable pods are in each effort and see if there's a measurable yield difference between the three approaches," he said.

The small fields of soybeans intercropped into wheat produced some interesting results, as well. "The wheat didn't get very tall. We used a different header. We had more grain loss than we would have liked," he said.

As July starts its slow boil, Pottinger still has plenty on his plate. "We're in 'kiss and a prayer' mode on crops. We're kind of locked into what it is until September," he said.

Lately he's also been busy showing out-of-state visitors how he's working to supply local distilleries. The tourism that has accompanied the growth in the bourbon industry has created opportunity for local farmers and the local communities that have built a culture around it. Most of that has happened in the last 10-12 years and he sees it as a good example of how communities can build around agriculture as an industry, much as they once did.

Another concept Pottinger has been exploring is rooted in that same premise of local goods. Pottinger took a deep dive into meat consumption by area when packing plant issues came to light during COVID.

"Our goal is to create a livestock market for all these farmers with 40-acre plots that raise 10 head of cattle and give them a place to go with them that is competitive," he explained. "Secondly, we want to be able to leverage the infrastructure that we already have in Kentucky.

"Here, we know that a 13-head (per week) processing plant can service at least three towns and because it is small, it could scale down based on demand without sacrificing overhead," he said, admitting that getting product into local grocery stores is one of many questions to work through. Another chore is addressing how to pelletize distiller's grains to take advantage of that local feedstuff.

"The idea of it goes back to the mission for our farm -- how do we create food systems in these communities that are vibrant and viable -- that's not even thinking about the carbon implications of this," he said.

Pottinger admitted he finds the science behind the carbon question squishy. "Everyone wants to peg carbon to food and green the ag and manufacturing sectors. Seems to me we could start by not moving food around so much," he observed.

He realizes the local model doesn't fit everywhere. But Kentucky is made up of lots of small towns that he believes could take a step back away from preprocessed and shelf-stable products that have become mainstays in today's food system.

"We're in a really weird time where consumers are demanding something that is local, but they don't or can't afford to pay for it. If we can localize the food system and lose the approximately 40% transportation represents in the cost of food, the farmer can get more of the dollar without adding cost to the consumer while having a more consistently reliable product," he said.

That's the thought process, anyway. Pottinger said the concept works best for beef if farmers could be convinced to tweak breeding cycles to keep supply lines full. Aquaculture is also a possibility. Poultry and hogs would be tougher since the industry is already so vertically integrated.

He's generated revenue and has been working through the financing for the packing plant, although some have told him the project is too small and needs more scale. "The problem with the industry is it is scaled. You cannot scale truly fresh food," he said.

Stay tuned. There is no shortage of dreams when you have lots of ambition and a long view.

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

Follow her on social platform X @PamSmithDTN


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