HANCOCK COUNTY — Against a stout southerly wind and churning under a high, pale blue sky Wednesday, James Phares plied his family’s field with a big John Deere 8260 tractor, dropping soybean seeds from a 12-row planter.
“It’s ideal right now,” Phares said, stepping down from the cab on an 80-degree afternoon. “We’re hittin’ it hard.”
Phares and most Hancock County farmers were fairly getting after it Wednesday, taking advantage of the week’s warming temperatures ahead of expected wet weather this weekend.
Planting soybeans in last year’s untilled corn field as part of the approximately 3,000-acre farm’s normal crop rotation, Phares said the week produced “a nice window” to plant.
“We’ve been moving along with some consecutive days of good weather, and that’s allowed us to get a lot more done,” he said. “We’ve been blessed.”
With wet soil and lingering cold hanging on through April, Hoosier farmers got off to a slow start during this year’s planting season, which runs generally from April 20 to mid-May.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that only 8 percent of Indiana’s corn crop had been put in the fields by the week ending April 27.
However, in its latest report, the agency said the state’s farmers made up a significant amount of ground during the first week of May by getting 20 percent of the crop planted by Friday.
This time last year, farmers were hamstrung by a soggy spring, having planted only 7 percent of the corn crop.
Though faring better this year, the NASS reports corn planting in Indiana is still lagging behind the five-year average of 34 percent for the first week of May.
Washington’s numbers, however, meant nothing to western Hancock County farmer Doug Schildmier, who spoke on his cellphone from the cab of his tractor Wednesday.
Schildmier said he expected to have his 400 acres of corn planted perhaps by the end of the day.
“The ground’s working real good,” he said. “We’re enjoying this warm weather, aren’t we?”
According to the National Weather Service in Indianapolis, the area saw its first 80-degree day in seven months, and that, with the help of Wednesday’s wind, was turning a planting window into a wide open doorway.
“The temperature is great right now,” Phares said. “And with the wind, the soil is drying really well.”
Eastern Hancock farmer Monty Zapf, who was running his tractor in Rush County Wednesday afternoon, agreed the recent weather has brought just about everybody out of the barn.
“Some guys went in a bit earlier last Monday or Tuesday,” Zapf said. “But this dry spell has everybody taking advantage of it to move through their corn crop.
“It was drying out pretty quickly, and then with the 80-degree temperature and the wind it was instant,” he said.
Now into “the heavy part of planting season,” Zapf said he was half-way through his corn planting Wednesday and began drilling his first beans last week.
“This is prime planting, and they’ve made up a lot of ground,” said Hancock County Purdue extension educator Roy Ballard.
For those working the fields earlier last month, Purdue University corn specialist Bob Nielsen in a Wednesday Purdue Agriculture news release cautioned farmers to be alert for early-season crop damage attributable to planting in cold, moist soil.
But locally, Ballard said his hunch is any adverse effects from early planting would be localized to specific parts of a field, such as low-lying areas.
This weekend’s weather forecast is another factor driving farmers out of the gate this week to get planting done before the rain.
According NWS forecasts Wednesday, an upper ridge will produce breezy and warmer conditions today, but showers and thunderstorms will accompany a low- pressure system and trailing cold front tonight and into Friday, which sounded good to Phares, who farms in western Hancock County.
Getting seed into the warm soil followed by some moisture would just about be ideal, he said.
“As long as we don’t get too much,” he said.
If the rain holds off through sundown today, Schildmier, who has yet to drill any beans on his 1,700-acre farm, said he could have half his crop planted by this evening.
Schildmier said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a full 50 percent of the state’s corn crop planted by the weekend, and Ballard tends to agree.
“They’re putting seed in the ground as fast as they can,” Ballard said. “They don’t waste any time, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see that percentage (of corn) planted change dramatically in a couple of days.”