By Raegan Johnson

Tonya Ball stops from her busy schedule for a photo on her tractor.

They’re there from sun up to sun down, operating machinery, cleaning equipment—whatever needs to be done. Tonya Ball, said they work just as hard—if not harder—than most of the boys. They are female farmers, and their role in agriculture is more significant than some may think.

FAO estimates that women produce between 60 to 80 percent of the food in most developing countries and are responsible for half of the world’s food production.

Ball’s husband introduced her to farming seven years ago. In Plainview, Texas, her family grows corn, wheat, milo and cotton.

“I do all of the financial work,” Ball said. “I drive the tractor. I help water. I help plant. I help with harvest. I do everything.”

Ball said women are underestimated in farming.

“People think a woman can’t get the job done, but actually we do it more efficiently,” she said.  “We tear up less equipment, and there are a lot of [male] farmers now that say so. They are hiring more women because we’re alert and pay more attention to detail.”

Ball said during harvest she is up at 8 a.m., helping to prepare the equipment—greasing and cleaning—and out harvesting sometimes until midnight.

“On just a regular farming day, I handle all of the financial things first thing in the morning,” she said. “The bills, banking, getting reports ready for loans, and making sure we can pay out—I take care of all of that. And by mid-morning, I’m on the tractor and I’m there until about 6 or 7 p.m.”

Just like Ball, Cindy Cunningham of Kempton, Indiana, said when the guys are in the field, she is in the field.

“My father was a farmer, and I married a farmer,” Cunningham said.  “My dad raised hogs, and we would help him with feed and stuff, but a lot of my experience came through 4-H. I used to show cattle.”

Cunningham said she currently doesn’t do any tillage work, but in the spring she hauls anhydrous (ammonia) tanks, chemicals, water, and seed during planting. She said she also keeps the tractors going. And in the fall, she runs the grain cart. She is also responsible for finances and keeping the books.

“I enjoy helping my husband with farming,” Cunningham said. “The hours aren’t always the same, and the tasks aren’t always the same. I like the variety.”

And even with the long days and the hard work, both women say they prefer farming over any 9-to-5 job.

“I think it’s great if a woman has an opportunity to be at home, and help their husbands in their farming business,” Cunningham said.

“The reason I do this is because I enjoy it,” Ball said. “It’s challenging, and it gives me some family time I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t involved in farming.

Raegan has worked on Monsanto’s internal communications team for the past two years. She has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Saint Louis University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is currently pursuing a PhD in public policy. In her free time, she loves to volunteer with children.

Co-authored by Janice Person and Nick Weber

Cotton emerging from the soil

The unofficial start of planting season got under way today, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its 2010 Prospective Plantings report. It’s an annual report that the agency issues each March 31 as its best estimates on what farmers may plant for corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and many other crops.

The quick highlights:

  • A record 78.1 million acres of soybeans
  • 88.8 million acres of corn (second-highest on record)
  • 53.8 million acres of wheat (lowest since 1970)
  • 10.5 million acres of cotton (15 percent higher than 2009)

According to Kansas farmer Darin Grimm, the Plantings report is one of the couple big reports that he follows.

“I pay a fair amount of attention,” said Grimm. “It moves the market. We look to see what affect it will have on prices, so we pay a fair amount of attention. In this case, the numbers are about as expected.”

Illinois farmer Doug Martin said the report gets the year going for farmers.

“I have always had my doubts about the USDA reports because I have always wondered about their accuracy,” he said. “However, it does set a benchmark for the year. I was able to attend the March report a few years ago in (Washington) D.C., and I think that they do their best to get an accurate number.”

The report isn’t swaying Grimm and Martin to change acreage intentions, as they expect their corn and soybean acreage mix to remain the same. The past couple days’ weather has kicked things into high gear on the Grimm farm. After a wet fall and snowy winter, the 70-degree days are just what the Midwest and South needed. Grimm said fall fieldwork has been pushed back to this spring.

“In my area, typically, we will have all our anhydrous (fertilizer) on corn acres in the fall and also do fall herbicide spraying,” he said. “Once we have those operations done, we’re committed to planting corn on those acres.”

That means the Kansas farmers could switch some acres to soybeans, which is why the report is an estimate.

“Right now, there’s a fair amount of nitrogen that needs to go on corn acres, which is unusual for us. It was so wet all fall and winter that we simply didn’t get it down. So if it stays wet, those acres can go to beans more easily.”

Down south, planting is underway from South Texas to South Carolina.  Texas was singled out as the state with the greatest move to cotton, accounting for an extra 600,000 acres of the 10.5 million forecast for 2010. The increase in cotton acres was something farmers have been discussing and optimistic about for months, according to Barry Evans who farms in Kress, Texas on the High Plains.

“Here north of Lubbock we’re cotton & grain so we can move easily how much we plant of cotton, corn and sorghum. I’ll be planting more cotton and expect that as you move north toward Amarillo there will be a greater movement into cotton,” Evans said. The winter provided good moisture on the High Plains and good weather now has lots of people doing field work. He adds that he looks forward to seeing more producers next week at the Plains Cotton Growers annual meeting.

In South Carolina, Thad Wimberly has been busy planting corn in a strip tillage system.  Early spring rains have delayed him a bit but this week has been productive.  “As far as out look we will take 200 acres out of corn and put in more cotton.”

This increase in cotton acres is something most states expect this spring according to the USDA, estimating that only Kansas, Louisiana and Arkansas will see drops.

There’s one common theme among all farmers on March 31 though: excitement for planting.

“We are really excited,” Martin said. “After the last two wet springs. we would like to ‘enjoy’ this planting season. Although with all of last fall’s work still left to do, it will probably be chaotic, unless it quits raining until the middle of May. We are hoping to get some field work started by the weekend, and if we miss Saturday’s rain we will be ready to go full steam ahead.”

“It’s always exciting,” Grimm said. “It’s easy to be optimistic in the spring.”

California Dreamin’ with Corn, Soybean, Wheat and Sorghum Growers

The 2010 Commodity Classic Show kicks off today in Anaheim, California. Classic (as its known to hip ag-sters) is the annual meeting of the nation’s corn, soybean, wheat and sorghum growers, hosted by the National Corn Growers Association, American Soybean Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, and the National Sorghum Producers.

We have a team of Monsanto employees at the show providing live coverage to growers back home to growers who don’t want to miss out on the action.

Be sure to check out the Commodity Classic hub on our Monsanto Web site during the show for event coverage. Attendees are tweeting live coverage of the event using the hashtag #classic10. You can also follow these Monsanto twitter accounts for coverage of Learning Center sessions – @MonsantoCo, @Kath_Monsanto, @KateOnline, Tyne_Ag.

We’ll also be posting photos and updates on the Monsanto Company Facebook page.

Here are some other great blogs and people to follow on-line for Classic coverage.

Blog Coverage

AgWired.com
NCGA’s Flickr page

NCGA’s Corn Commentary
NAWG’s Wheat World

Twitter Coverage

@cornfedfarmer
@Ken4Corn

@mpaynknoper
@INSoybean
@agissues2010

@agchick
@ASA_News2

@NECGA

@agriblogger

I’ve visited a handful of row-crop farms, talked with dozens of farmers, stood on top of a lock and dam and been to a few farm shows during my short career in agriculture. There’s a lot I still need to do, but I was able to check “visit a grain elevator” off my list.

After visiting a farm, the elevator probably is the next place one should visit to learn about agriculture. In most ag communities, the elevator is the first stop for grain after harvest. The elevator is sort of like the final accounting of what took place in the field. Usually, the farmer has a pretty good idea of his haul and the moisture content of his crop after harvest. The elevator provides the final answer—and the final dollar amount that the farmer will receive for the crop.

During my visit to the Farmer Coop Elevator in St. Peters, Mo., manager Dan Zerr walked me through te process of a farmer delivering grain. I’ve always seen the elevators from a distance driving on Interstate 70 to Kansas City or Interstate 55 to Chicago. Many look impressive against the backdrop of corn, soybean and wheat fields. The Farmers Coop Elevator is a small elevator (180,000 bushel capacity) compared with newer ones, but that doesn’t change how impressive it is when you get an up-close look. I hope you’ll find the accompanying photo essay captures the process of a farmer delivering grain and how an elevator works.

Background on Farmers Coop Elevator:

The Farmers Coop Elevator was founded in 1916. It’s located in St. Peters, Mo, a suburban community approximately 25 miles west of downtown St. Louis. The coop is on the north side of I-70 in the Mississippi River bottom, where most of the farms that the coop serves are located. On the south side of I-70, subdivisions dominate the land. The coop serves most of east central St. Charles County, from St. Peters in the east to the west side of O’Fallon, Mo. It even pulls in a few farmers from the county to the north, Lincoln County.

When a farmer brings his truck to unload grain, the first thing that happens is a weight check. This device gives a reading of the weight of the truck plus the grain in the bed.

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A photo of cotton being grown on one of Monsanto's research farms

Last week, I rode with two colleagues from work over to the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. We visited the Melvin Price Lock & Dam #26 just south of Alton, and then went on to Monsanto’s research farm at Jerseyville. One colleague, Nick, was working on a story about the lock and dam and its critical importance to agriculture (posted here); the other, Tyne, was developing a video feature on the research farm. As for me, well, I was on the trip mostly for the research farm visit, to listen to employees talk about what they do. They’ll be featured in a post in a few weeks.

What struck me about both visits was technology – two very different technologies that are critical for agriculture.

The technology that built Lock and Dam #26 was a collection of engineering and design disciplines. The lock is enormous; I didn’t ask the tour guide for the statistics on the amount of concrete used in construction but to see what’s constructed is to wish you had the contract for the concrete. (If you have to know, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brochure says it used 800,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the structure.) (That’s my home driveway times 123,000.) Technology meets water.

I can recall the controversy when it was constructed – some said it wasn’t necessary; it wasn’t environmentally sound; it would damage the river system; it would cost too much. But one thing is clear – it works. And it’s critical for agriculture in the Midwest, because the Mississippi River is the main means of transporting grain south to the Port of New Orleans for export. Little known fact: this was as true 200 years as it is today, and one of the reasons the British sought to capture New Orleans in the War of 1812 – to prevent American farmers from shipping their crops.

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