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Tom Robertus

Tom Robertus' cornfields have gotten ample rain this spring. 

If you’re a Montana corn farmer, and your ears are burning, be advised that state ag officials are talking up your future.

Montana farmers have planted at least 100,000 acres of corn in each of the past four years. That’s more Montana acres in corn than sugar beets or canola combined, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

But state agriculture officials say those corn acres could be better if more were known about the varieties being planted. A $3 research and marketing fee collected on 80,000-seed bags of corn is up for a vote by producers. Similar fees are collected on cherries, potatoes and pulse crops like lentils and peas.

Test plots would be planted at the Montana State University Southern Agriculture Research Center in Huntley if the fee is approved.

“If we get our ducks in a row and have money coming in, we would have the experimental state testing hybrids there to see how they stack up,” said Kim Nile, Montana Corn Advisory Committee chairman.

Nile farms beets, wheat, barley and corn near Forsyth. Corn acres have been steady along Eastern Montana rivers for years, Nile said. Farmers with irrigated land have been able to harvest more than 200 bushels an acre in some areas. At those volumes, corn is able to squeeze out crops like barley and sugar beets even when market prices for corn are low, as they are this year.

Corn is currently trading for about $3.50 a bushel for July delivery on the Chicago Board of Trade. That’s roughly half the price farmers were getting in 2012 when Montana corn acres surpassed 100,000 for the first time. At that point, Montana corn acres increased more than 43 percent. Strong prices at the early part of the decade coupled with weed- and pest-resistant bio-engineered varieties convinced Montana farmers to try corn even in dry land areas lucky to receive a foot of moisture a year.

Farmers will plant a “74-day” corn and harvest it 92 days later because of growth slowed by Montana temperatures. Corn states like Iowa average more than 30 inches of rain and reach harvest times as advertised.

In March, farmers reported to NASS that 20,000 fewer corn acres would be planted in Montana this year, but the fact that corn acres stayed above 100,000 indicates that low prices aren’t discouraging producers.

A corn glut caused by farmers expanding corn acres nationwide during high market years eventually pushed prices down. Acres planted should now decline because of lower prices, which in the end should drive the price back up, said Tom Robertus, who farms corn and sells seed in Laurel.

“I kind of tell guys to stick with the program,” Robertus said. “The old saying is that nothing kills high prices like high prices, and nothing kills low prices like low prices.”

Robertus doesn’t support the proposed per capita fee on corn. Corn seed companies already cooperate with farmers to establish test plots across Montana, Robertus said.

Nile and supporters of the fee say the MSU researchers would be able to compare corn from several different companies side by side to see which performed best under specific conditions. He also doesn’t want to be burdened with collecting the fee from customers.

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