Memories of the spring snow that halted planting

Some awful weather events are etched in the minds of farmers and can't be removed.

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Author Mychal Wilmes recalls the snow storm of May 2013 that halted spring planting progress in southern Minnesota.
Agweek file photo

I paid little attention when the meteorologist on television mentioned the overnight snow was possible. After all, planting was in full swing in what was a normal spring and the calendar had reached the first week of May 2013.

I wished I had taken the forecast more seriously after the front door wouldn’t open the morning after. From the window view, the outside was covered in deep and blue-tinged snow. More than a foot of snow had fallen. Tractors and planters that were otherwise ready to roll were camouflaged in white.

It was a disaster for many farmers in southeast Minnesota that required them to make difficult decisions about prevented planting acres and the possibility of finding earlier maturity corn varieties. Some took the chance of planting normal maturing varieties and risk lighter and wetter corn at harvest. Others didn’t finish planting at all, and at the urging of government and private advisors examined the potential of cover crops on the land.

Almost all farmers in southeastern Minnesota had some prevented planting acreage. Suddenly, cover crops and where to get them became a hot topic.

Rye, wheat, triticale for forage, and daikon radishes became important alternatives to protect the soil and provide forage alternatives for beef cattle and dairy enterprises. Weed management, and herbicide carryover issues were important considerations.


To read more of Mychal Wilmes' Farm Boy Memories, click here.

Ground that was left barren could impact soil fertility and be exposed to rain and wind erosion. I was surprised that soil fertility was such a big issue, knowing that it had been a sustainable practice in Canada to leave some fields empty to build moisture and help next year’s small grain crop. It has been used for centuries in North Africa, and Asia.

In the Old Testament, a Jewish law called Shmita ( the Sabbath Year) required that fields be left fallow every seven years to refresh the soil. The law also required all personal debt be forgiven every seven years, which certainly would cause economic upheaval in the United States and worldwide.

Dad, who had seen good and bad planting seasons during more than 50 years of farming, often talked about the 1930s when corn was planted in desert-like ground and when untiled ground was a quagmire due to endless rain. He left a mostly oral chronicle of planting seasons

He recorded small grain planting information on the wood that covered grain drill seeds. Written in pencil, he recorded spring wheat and barley planting dates. Some planting was done in mid-March while others occurred much later. He also wrote about how much alfalfa seed per acre was added with the oats.

Planting alfalfa as an oats companion crop was essential. The barn needed to be full of straw come winter and most times the alfalfa could be cut in fall to add to the hay supply. A good alfalfa stand might last three or four years unless winterkill took its toll.


I wish Dad had written about their ups and downs in farming. The Dust Bowl and other national and local events would be interesting reading. Dad certainly had opinions about USDA secretary Ezra Taft Benson’s land bank program, and the year when hail hit in August and shredded the corn.

Dad and mother operated a rented farm with hopes of buying their own. Dad was more than 50 years old when the opportunity came. The house, which was far too small for a large family, was in good shape and indoor plumbing was a revelation.

There was a price to be paid in December when the annual farm mortgage was due. Somehow — through the grace of God — there was enough money.

Farmers survived the great snowfall of May 2013 with help from the federal and state government. It is committed to memory. Perhaps some of farmers record their memories about the year their tractors and planters were covered in snow.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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