After traveling nearly 16,000 miles on 13 different routes across the Midwest, I and other scouts on the 1998 Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour agreed that the bean crop is big. In fact, most producers on the trip were impressed by the bean crop's ability to withstand heavy early and mid-season stress.

As September started, some potential problems were yet to be quantified. They included sudden-death syndrome and brown stem rot in the eastern Soybean Belt; white mold in northern bean areas; and some questionable plant health in Iowa and Indiana, thought to have been caused by excessive water early in the season.

But there's no denying the 1998 bean crop was loaded with pods at tour time in the third week of August. A big pod count is not guaranteed to lead to a big yield, but it's the first factor in the equation that leads to above-average results.

These are hugely impressive pod counts. Ohio is the only state toured with a pod count in 9 sq. ft. below the year-ago number, and all states were above the five-year average. Ohio topped its five-year average by 14.75%; Indiana, by 27.8%; Illinois, by 18.9%; Iowa, by 16.5%; and Minnesota, by a whopping 38.7%

While the primary reason for our annual tour is to assess crop condition and potential, tour participants also take note of changing production trends. One of the most vivid trends has been the move toward narrow-row bean production.

The east is obviously more into the narrow rows than the west, but the reason is fairly simple - many producers already have drills for wheat seedings and get double use out of the equipment.

While Iowa and Minnesota were part of the trend, the average row width for these states is stretching out just a bit. One reason in Iowa is that we're now collecting more samples from western Iowa where the rows are wider. However, we noticed fewer 7.5" rows in northern Iowa in 1998. And Minnesota's average bean row width has widened significantly in the last two years - despite the fact that we've sampled the same counties.

Producers in these areas say that the wider row width is an attempt to combat white mold. It increases air flow under the canopy for a longer period during the growing season.

Also, the move to narrow rows has not translated directly into heavier seeding rates. And, in Minnesota, the wider rows have been accompanied by significantly higher pod counts.

Data collected during the tour played a major role in Pro Farmer's just-completed estimate of 1998 soybean production.

In '98, Pro Farmer expects bean production of 2.81 billion to 2.90 billion bushels. That compares to USDA's Aug. 1 bean production estimate of 2.825 billion. Obviously, Pro Farmer sees high odds of an increase in the crop estimate from USDA. However, because of the risk of a poor finish to the crop season caused by potential late-season diseases, Pro Farmer left open the possibility of a slight reduction in USDA's production estimate.

We see the total '98 corn crop at 9.53 billion to 9.65 billion bushels. The threat of a poor finish to the growing season, resulting from nitrogen deficiency across the Corn Belt, had producers on the trip expecting USDA's final corn estimate to be closer to the low end of the range than the top.