By Anne Snabes
ARTHUR, Ill. — Mennonite farmer Willis Kuhns said 2019 was “as frustrating as it gets.”
He started planting corn on his farm in Arthur in mid-April last year, but frequent rain halted the process.
“It would almost be ready to plant and then we’d get another rain,” Kuhns said.
Kuhns and his colleagues finally finished planting their corn late in the season — on Memorial Day weekend. The farm also grows soybeans, like many farms throughout Illinois and Iowa. It took until late June for Kuhns to finish planting the soybeans. That’s at least 30 days behind schedule for both crops, he said.
“When you shorten up their life, usually you’re cutting yield,” he said.
Kuhns’ corn harvest last year was about 17% lower than the previous year, and his soybean yield was about 21% lower.
According to the Chicago Tribune, 2019 was the second wettest year on record for the U.S. Overall corn yield in Illinois decreased by nearly 19% between 2018 and 2019, according to United States Department of Agriculture data. Soybean yield similarly dropped by 20%. The statewide corn and soybean yields had reached their highest values on record in 2018, though, so the 2019 yield values were still close to average, according to Emerson Dale Nafziger, professor emeritus of crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The Medill News Service spoke with Amish and Mennonite farmers in Arthur, who had to push back planting their crops until later last spring, which in some cases reduced yield. The Amish and Mennonites faced the toll of heavy rains last year and will have to adapt to extreme weather caused by climate change in the future. What does that mean for farmers with generations of faith traditions that value less mechanized agriculture?
Amish and Mennonite religious communities formed during the Protestant Reformation in Europe, following lives separate from worldly vanities. They immigrated to the U.S. in the 1700s and 1800s, according to Steven Nolt, a senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. Nolt said discrimination against the religious dissenters in the 1700s encouraged them to immigrate to the U.S., along with economic factors.
The Amish and Mennonites differ in their practices. Amish families ride in their horse-drawn buggies as cars and trucks rush by on paved highways of the Midwest. They honor technological restrictions in keeping with their faith.
The largest Amish community in Illinois lives in Arthur, with an Amish population of 4,700, according to Nolt and the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies.
Nolt said there is a wider spectrum of behavior followed by Mennonites. Some Mennonites farm with horse and buggy. Others farm in the same way as non-Mennonite neighbors, according to Nafziger, himself a Mennonite.
Already, farmers are facing the front lines of climate change. Rainfall from April to June has increased over the last 30 years in the Midwest, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, published in 2018. Nafziger said he has heard people say that storms have become more intense.
“We’ve had some pretty astonishing amounts of rainfall in different parts of the Midwest, and you know it seems to rain easily,” he said.
Swollen spring rivers and marshy fields along U.S. Highway 57 reinforce the climate assessments. Exit 203 off the highway leads to downtown Arthur.
Kuhns said that in his community, “you can’t tell the difference” between Mennonites and people of other faiths. Kuhns is the president of Prairie Land Farms and Mid-way Farms, just south of Arthur. Containers full of seed sit in his shop, along with his office and large vehicles such as tractors. The remains of corn stalks left over from last season line the fields around the building.
Kuhns said the lower crop yields have lowered his economic security.
“When you get money taken away from you or so to speak, well, yeah, it affects you to where you just are more cautious and don’t spend any money,” he said. “We try not to, more than you have to.”
Levi E. Yoder, a Mennonite farmer, agreed it rained more than usual last year. He owns Yoder Family Farms, where his grandson plants the corn and his son plants the soybeans. Yoder drives the field cultivator, a device that turns and mixes the top layer of the soil.
Yoder’s field cultivator and other vehicles sit in a storage building that is more like a hanger than a barn. The bulky vehicles are taller than Yoder, 77 at the time of the interview.
He prefers to plant crops in mid-April, but the rain last year pushed back planting on his farms until mid-May. He produced about 15% less corn in 2019 than in 2018. The soybean yield dropped 10% compared to 2018. Nevertheless, he said last year was a “good year.”
“Management was the key to get the crop in last spring,” he said.
While working on a field with his field cultivator, he encountered a wet spot. A rookie would say the area is too wet and not plant there, he said. Yoder, on the other hand, had viewed the forecast and knew that it would be dry and warm the following day, so he decided to plant in the wet area.
“Experience really was the key last year to get the crop in,” he said. “We got the crop in on time. The corn came out pretty good.”
Even with the rain last season, Yoder said he is not planning to change any of his farming practices this spring. He said he’ll approach the season as if it is an average year.
Melvin Beachy, an Amish farmer in Arthur, said he has farmed since 1985.
“In my farming career, this year was a bigger challenge than any year I’ve met yet as far as — I’ve seen wet springs already — but never for this long and then [it] stayed wet,” he said, referring to last year.
Beachy said he and his wife also own a concrete business and a bulk foods store. Employees at the store wear traditional dresses and head coverings. The Beachys live in a white farmhouse near the store. A metal pole for parking horses stands outside their house, a modern version of an Old West hitching rail. Farming vehicles also sit in their parking lot.
Their farm relies on horse-drawn equipment and they grow soybeans, corn, alfalfa, rye and hay. Horses pull Beachy’s diesel-powered rotavator to prepare the soil, he said. And while seeding, the farmers use a planter that is pulled by horses.
Despite the rainy spring last year, Beachy said his crop yields were similar to past years.
Bruno Basso, a professor of crop modeling and land use sustainability at Michigan State University, said the Midwest will experience more frequent rain in future springs. And then drought will hit during the summers.
Yoder said he is not concerned about climate change.
“I learned that it gets hot and it gets cold, it gets dry and it gets wet, and it’ll continue to do that,” he said.
Yoder said a drought is as likely this year as a wet season.
Nafziger predicted that Amish and Mennonite farmers will not adapt differently to climate change than others will.
He is hopeful that as hybrid varieties of plants improve, farmers will become more resilient. Hybrids are genetically modified plants that have advantageous traits, such as absorbing water from the soil more efficiently to cope with drought. Some Amish farmers use genetically modified plants, while others don’t, according to Nafziger.
Basso, however, said Amish farmers will be impacted more by climate change than other farmers, because the Amish still till their land.
Basso said tillage is when farmers mix the soil before they plant seeds. He said this process breaks apart soil aggregates that contain carbon, which exposes the carbon to microbes. The microbes then decompose the carbon. Tillage thus reduces the amount of organic carbon in the soil, which makes the soil less fertile. In another technique called no-tillage, farmers only till where the seed is planted, which keeps more organic carbon in the soil than tilling does. The Amish do not usually practice no-tillage, according to Basso. However, Beachy said he used no-tilling last year.
Basso noted positive aspects of Amish farming, including that the farmers do not use mineral nitrogen fertilizer and emit less greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming than other farmers. They release some carbon dioxide, though, when they use manure and when they till the land.
Jonathan Gingerich, a 53-year-old Amish farmer in Arthur, said he has read about climate change in farm papers. But he added that he does not “pretend to be schooled on it.”
He said he and other members of the Amish community could adapt to more extreme weather in the future by using more tiles on their fields. Tiling is a technique where farmers place a plastic tube in the soil to collect water, which then drains into a ditch. Tiling allows farmers to deal with more rain, he said.
Gingerich said that last spring, he thought his crops would turn out poorly. But he said his harvest ended up being “just a little” above average.
“It turned out so good,” he said. “So why worry, because God can take care of all of it.”
Photo at top: Willis Kuhns, 72 at the time of the interview, has lived in Arthur since 1975. (Anne Snabes/MEDILL)