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Solar storm disrupts planting at O’Connor farm

Solar storm, blooming prairie, tiffany graham, northern lights
This photo taken by Tiffany Graham has attracted national attention of the situation Blooming Prairie area farmer Patrick O’Connor faced during the recent Northern Lights solar storm. O’Connor’s tractor was grounded under the hail of lights as the GPS equipment failed.
Rick Bussler, Publisher
“GPS in today’s world is critical.”
-Patrick O’Connor, BP Area Farmer

Farmers like Patrick O’Connor of rural Blooming Prairie are used to a variety of challenges on the farm. But none have ever matched up to what O’Connor experienced earlier this month.

After a couple inches of rain delayed what looked to be a promising early spring planting season, O’Connor was ready to roll with his tractor and corn planter on May 10. To his astonishment, he was stopped in his tracks by the effects of the Northern Lights solar storm.

The powerful geomagnetic solar storms interfered with GPS in the tractor, leaving O’Connor grounded and unable to continue planting corn.

O’Connor quickly found himself helpless. He reached out to his GPS provider, only to receive a recording that the company was aware of an issue involving the GPS systems and they probably would not work Friday night from at least 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. because of solar flares.

“It was pretty bizarre,” said O’Connor, who farms soybeans and corn south of Blooming Prairie. “There was nothing I could do. I had to wait it out.”

He plants his corn in 30-inch rows and relies on the GPS for auto steer on the tractors. The GPS allows O’Connor to make straight lines and plant more seeds per acre.

“GPS in today’s world is critical,” O’Connor says. “We invest in modern technology to do the best we can. If you make an investment in this type of equipment, you don’t want to go backwards and not use all the new gadgets. We are so reliant on GPS.”

With nowhere to go for O’Connor, a friend snapped a photograph of O’Connor’s tractor sitting idle in the field under the solar storm. O’Connor posted it on Facebook, and he quickly began getting phone calls from farms all over the country dealing with the same thing. The New York Times even reached out to O’Connor for a story.

“My phone wouldn’t stop ringing,” O’Connor said, adding it proved to be an interesting experience for him.

Admittedly, O’Connor thought the solar storm was beautiful to see, especially from his wide-open view in the middle of the field. And he wasn’t alone. He said a steady stream of cars came out of town to watch the display.

It has also brought out his sense of humor.

“I’ve been joking that I must work too hard. If I shut down one evening, it makes national news,” he said.

By the next morning on Saturday, May 11, things returned to normal, and O’Connor was back to planting—with his GPS leading the way.

O’Connor said he has been using GPS for about 20 years and never experienced anything like this before. “We’ve always tried to adapt to new technology to boost our efficiency on the farm,” he noted.

Farmers around the area got a reprieve to get their crops planted over the past two weeks.

According to the USDA weekly crop report, 81% of the corn crop has been planted as of Sunday, two days ahead of last year, compared to 75% in 2023. The five-year average is 74%. For soybeans, 51% have been planted compared to 46% last year.

The USDA rates topsoil moisture at 74% adequate, 18% surplus and 7% short. Subsoil moisture supplies are rated 70% adequate, 17% surplus and 11% short.

Despite the temporary setbacks with rain and the solar storm, O’Connor said he’s on track for a “pretty normal” planting season. He had planned to finish planting earlier this week.

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