Harvest time pushed back because of rain

Mauricio Julian Cuellar Jr., Jim Wells County Correspondent

David Hoelscher stepped out of his gray pickup to inspect his grain sorghum.

At 95 degrees out, Hoelscher said it would only take a little wind to help dry out his crop.

His is a concern shared by many area farmers in Jim Wells County. After the near-record rains experienced this month, the entire harvest schedule has been pushed back, Hoelscher said.

"We didn't expect this amount of rain. It just doesn't happen in July," Hoelscher said.

The area usually receives three or four inches, far from the 20 inches reported last month.

A major concern for grain is mildew and mold. The head of the crop goes from a pretty red color to a dark, or black.

The moisture and humidity mixes with the heat to create the right environment for the seed to sprout in the grain head, which isn't what farmers want.

"Any time near harvest, rain like this. It doesn't do any good," Hoelscher said.

He knows about grain, and cotton and corn. He also knows about heat and weather. Along with his brother, Frank J. Hoelscher Jr., David has been working the family farm for more than 35 years.

They usually begin the harvest in early July, with a trio of John Deere combines running up and down the field along with grain buggies, but with the ground still soft and wet, all he can do is wait for the ground to dry.

"John Deeres stuck in a grain field are of no use to anyone. The thing that determines fate most is the weather and you have the least control of it," Hoelscher said. "The ground doesn't give as much now, we might try it (Wednesday) to see if the ground will hold. If not then we'll wait until Thursday."

A good season in Jim Wells County means averaging 3,000 pounds per acre. A bad season could see as low as 1,500 to 2,000 pounds an acre.

Hoelscher said before the rains fell last month, most farmers expected to see about 3,500 to 4,000 pounds of grain per acre.

Hoelscher stood on the edge of the grain field, examining the grain heads.

"I think if we can average 3,000 pounds, we'll be lucky. We'll probably have 25 percent or more loss because of damage. If the grain is damaged too much, you have discounts," Hoelscher said.

His grain is taken to the Agua Dulce Grain Company, which in turn takes a sample from each truck load to the Corpus Christi Grain Exchange, where the samples are graded. Damage is measured by percentage in the sample. Mold and mildew is damage, white or black discoloration counts as damage, and grains that sprout on the head are considered damaged.

"This year, anywhere from 25 to 40 percent damage is hurting us," Hoelscher said.

When there is 40 to 50 percent damage, the elevator has to decide whether they'll even take the crop, since it might not be worth half the market value, perhaps even less. Normal number 2 grain contains less than 5 percent damage.

Hoelscher said farmers don't know how bad a harvest is until it's sampled.

The Hoelscher Farms operation devotes 60 percent of the farm to grain sorghum.

The remainder is filled with cotton, corn and other crops. Left to grow with the heavy rains, cotton can easily grow taller than the average man. Hoelscher has seen men disappear in a field of cotton higher than six feet tall. Many farmers now use growth regulating hormones, such as P.I.X., to inhibit the crops' growth potential.

Without the spraying, Hoelscher's waist-high cotton crop would have grown two to three times larger with the excessive rains.

"If we didn't spray, you could get lost in it," Hoelscher said.

The cotton plant is a survivor. As it grows, small squares develop on the stems. The taller the plant the longer the stems. The cotton at the Hoelscher farm has short stems, but they are very numerous. The squares grow into yellow blooms, which is when pollination occurs. Cotton bolls grow inside the bloom, which changes to a shade of pink. The pink bloom closes at night, protecting the boll. As the boll matures, it hardens and becomes red and speckled.

Once it matures into an open cotton boll, constant rain on the exposed boll will leech out the lint.

Farmers never really know what will happen to their crops from one year to the next. The variables are just too great.

But despite the troubles that come with excessive wet weather, Hoelscher never prays for the rains to stop.

"We all know in South Texas, if the rain stops, it may not start again," Hoelscher said.

When he was asked at church whether to pray for less rain, he said, "during a time like now, with this weather, we don't pray for it to stop, we just pray for good harvest weather."

Hoelscher walked deeper into the crop, inspecting the grain heads and checking the ground for moisture.As he made his way across the field of grain, the farmer became a speck of blue against a field of red.