DEER CREEK — Hands out in front of their faces, simultaneously blocking eyeball-seeking shanks of foliage and parting inches-apart stalks, they took to cornfields by the dozen Monday to survey the crop.
Bell Enterprises Inc. gathered farmers, seed dealers, agribusiness specialists and more than a few family members at the company's grain elevator in Deer Creek to walk the fields, count ears and kernels, and provide general observations as part of the first of several planned crop surveys across the state ahead of harvest season.
More than 40 people all together went to at least a few fields apiece near Deer Creek, Congerville, Mackinaw and Goodfield — areas where Bell operates elevators — in groups of two and three people and waded into sky-blotting fields of green.
Kim Craig, who handles grain marketing for Bell Enterprises, said the surveys conducted each year over the last two decades have been able to predict the local yield within 7 percent of the actual harvest.
"The last years have been seeing our ear counts go up," Craig told the assembly of volunteers at the company's main office in Deer Creek on Monday morning. "You might find that your ears are not as far along as you think they are. I think there's something that has slowed us down."
While the final results of the local survey won't be available until after the grain gathered Monday is weighed and tabulated with the other counts on Tuesday, some samples gathered by two producers showed exactly the signs of "tipping" — kernels retreating from the tops of cobs — Craig had predicted.
Some ears Scott Burroughs gathered Monday were 10 to 12 rows of kernels behind those checked just a few weeks ago, even though the overall health of the crop checked at the beginning of this week still looked strong.
"The plants said, 'We can't afford you,' so they took it back," Burroughs said of the ear tops that seemingly absorbed kernels back into the cob.
Burroughs and Mark Bell, both a producer and vice president at Bell Enterprises, each checked two fields apiece Monday in the Deer Creek region, noting different seed and soil types along with plant health.
According to guidelines handed out in the morning, the men counted corn ears on two rows of stalks planted 30 inches apart across a 17.5-foot span and averaged the totals, then collected the second, sixth and 10th ears of one row along the span to count kernels. The process was repeated twice in each field, at least 50 rows from the edge and 32 rows apart.
"We're going to see a variety of ear sizes that way," Burroughs said.
There were some surprises — and some tipping, as Craig predicted. The predicted yield for one field came to 243 bushels per acre.
"That's just about what we're finding everywhere," Bell said.
Consistent results of that nature would result in yet another bumper crop in an already flooded grain market, ultimately driving prices and profits down. Burroughs said that outcome would put farmers at least two years away from a market turnaround, illustrating the contradictions inherent to modern farming — even a good growing season doesn't necessarily translate to good profits.
"If you're a farmer, you're never happy," Bell said.
Matt Buedel is the Journal Star business reporter. He can be reached at 686-3154 and email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JournoBuedel.