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Spring Planting Means Long Days for Farmers
By Laurel Druley
Minnesota Public Radio
May 18, 2001
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Farmers across Minnesota are scrambling to get seeds in the ground. Wet weather narrowed their window of opportunity for planting. Farmers have enjoyed exceptional planting conditions over the last two years, so this spring, while actually normal, seems atypical. We went with farmer Kevin Paap on a recent busy planting day.

Farmers across Minnesota are busy this week planting their crops. Kevin Paap and his family farm 800 acres in southern Minnesota. During planting season, Paap and his family work from dawn until dusk, getting their corn and soybeans into the ground. See a slideshow of Paap's day in the fields.
(MPR Photo/Laurel Druley)
JOHN DEERE TRACTORS ARE BUILT WITH HUGE TIRES for a reason. Farmer Kevin Paap says they're called floaters because they're supposed to stay on top of sticky wet soil. One of Paap's colleagues recently tempted fate, and in his rush to get the job done, got stuck nine times in the last two weeks in soil too wet to work.

It's crunch time for planting. Kevin Paap climbs into his tractor cab to start tilling, while his dad fertilizes and his wife pays a few bills. The Paap family will put in long hours this week to plant 800 acres of corn and soybeans about 20 miles south of Mankato. Kevin rose at 4:00 a.m. Monday morning to check his e-mail and get out on the field by daylight.

"We planted until we couldn't see the mark last night - it just doesn't work well if you plant after dark. We started this morning when we could see the mark and we'll work until either we break or we get done. We use every hour of sunshine we got."

Kevin's soil is still clumping a bit. The bigger the clumps the wetter the soil. Ideally, Kevin says he would wait a few days to let the soil dry more before planting. On the other hand, spring showers and the moisture locked beneath the soil's surface should sustain his crops during a dry summer.

The University of Minnesota extension office says every day after May 10th that seeds aren't in the ground, farmers lose half a bushel per acre per day. It can put a serious dent in an operation's bottom line.

On the digger, Kevin Paap, the vice president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, admits it can be a struggle to keep himself entertained after hours of soil cultivating.

"You don't need to spend 101 percent of your attention on the job at hand. You need to spend 70 percent, so you have plenty of time to sit and think and dream things up. There is a lot of dreaming out here - a lot of what ifs, a lot of strategizing - and I don't know what you think about - not getting stuck.

When Paap gets really tired he admits to singing oldies, popping lemon drops or NoDoz if he can't afford to sleep. Paap says driving in a straight line isn't as simple as it looks, especially after being on the tractor all day. He says some people have a knack for it. Farmers struggle with fatigue, wind conditions and visibility, even with the help of technology and global positioning equipment. Paap is trained as an emergency medical technician, so he knows the possible tragic consequences of falling asleep at the wheel.

After a couple of hours on the digger, Kevin Paap is relieved by his wife Julie. Climbing into the tractor cab, she gives Kevin her lunch order.

"Nobody cooks this time of year. We have breakfast with the kids before the school bus, a lot of cold meat sandwiches and drive-through. It's kind of like a picnic every day," says Paap.

Kevin brings back burgers from town for his father and wife. They stop their tractors on the edge of the field just long enough to pick up their sandwiches. Then it's back in the field. Not a minute is wasted.

Kevin continues with his errands. The next stop is the Crystal co-op grain elevator to get on the waiting list for crop protector or herbicide. "This is a busy place in the spring. We've got one guy who does nothing but answer the phone and take orders."

That guy is John Graham, and he says in his 12 years at the elevator he's never seen so much demand all at once. The late start has everyone in the field at the same time.

On the way to the seed salesman, Kevin points out a farm planted two weeks ago before the heavy rains hit. The corn seedlings are already sprouting.

"This was the first corn planted in the area. It wasn't quite right to plant, then it rained for two weeks. I should've been out there."

In his 17 years on the farm, Paap says he's learned how to fret only about things he can control. The weather obviously isn't one of them. In the past couple of years, Kevin says he was able to take in his son's Little League games. But this year he is too busy.

Back at the farm Kevin jumps into the tractor to plant corn, while his wife, Julie, continues digging. Even on Mother's Day, Julie didn't get off the tractor for long to celebrate with their two sons. Julie has about an acre to go before she's done tilling for the day. "I'm out there in the thick of it, too. I'm considered another hand out here to get the job done, and I enjoy that. I kind of run two ships - at home and out here," says Julie Paap.

She completes her final rows before heading home to take her son Matthew to Little League practice. In the meantime, Kevin heads on another fertilizer run. And then it's back to the fields to plant until dusk.