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Central Illinois corn and soybean farmer Garry Niemeyer inspects the soil temperature and the sprouting of corn seeds he planted near Auburn in 2014. Farmers are eager to fire up the combines and get their corn crops in the ground.

AP FILE

BLOOMINGTON — Farmers in Central Illinois are anxiously awaiting warmer weather in hopes it will lead to an early planting season and a better yield during harvest.

“Farmers always look forward to the spring and getting back in the field,” said Mike Orso, director of news and communication for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “They are eternal optimists and spring always represents rebirth.”

Last year, Illinois farmers planted 11.2 million acres of corn, produced 2.19 million bushels and averaged 198 bushels per acre, an increase of one bushel per acre from 2016. There were 10.6 million acres of soybeans planted and farmers harvested 611 million bushels, averaging 58 bushels per acre, up 3 percent from 2016 and the highest production level on record for Illinois.

“Most everyone was surprised with the final numbers being so good,” Orso said. “The weather was inconsistent. It was unusually warm in February, and then we had a very wet spring. A lot of Central Illinois farmers had planting concerns and challenges. Then, August was unusually cool and nobody really knew how that would impact the crops, but in the end, the numbers were good.”

Most farmers - in fact 59 percent who were surveyed by the Illinois Farm Bureau in November - believe the overall financial health of their farms in 2018 will be similar to 2017. But, 33 percent of Illinois farmers surveyed expect a decline in 2018.

“It’s not surprising that a combined 92 percent of our members expect the overall financial health of their farms to decline or merely remain the same,” said Mike Doherty, senior economist with the IFB. “Unfortunately, today’s commodity prices, input costs and overall farm economy have become commonplace for our members. They’ve been dealing with deteriorating farm income for four years now and unless we see a major weather event or significant market rally, farm income is unlikely to improve.”

According to the survey, more than half expect 2018 farm expenses to be higher than they were in 2017. To fight that, 85 percent plan to delay equipment purchases, 36 percent plan to cut farm debt to reduce payments, 33 percent plan to delay or cut back on chemical and fertilizer purchases, and 26 percent plan to reduce hired labor costs, negotiate lower cash rents, and buy less expensive seed.

“In this climate, farmers are looking for ways to cut expenses,” Doherty said. “It’s not only a matter of financial awareness for many, it will be an absolute necessity.”

Matt Sloan, who farms in rural Heyworth, is among those not likely to purchase new equipment this year.

“I would like to, but farming has so many unknowns that I think it’s best if I work with what I have and hope for a great year,” he said.

It’s still too early to tell how the weather will impact Central Illinois farmers. Last year was the sixth-warmest year on record in Illinois, with a statewide average temperature of 54.3 degrees, or 2 degrees above normal. The statewide average precipitation for the year was 37.65 inches, which was 2.31 inches below normal, according to State Climatologist Jim Angel of the Illinois State Water Survey.

Farmers will also keep an eye on other priority issues in 2018. According to the IFB survey, the top concern was staying in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and forging new trade agreements, followed by keeping crop insurance affordable; enacting federal tax reform; enacting healthcare policy that slows year-to-year health insurance premium increases; modernizing waterway infrastructure; and securing improvements to farm support programs in the 2018 farm bill.

Follow Kevin Barlow on Twitter: @pg_barlow

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