HAZEN — This year’s corn crop is worth way more than a hill of beans.

It’s dry out there and it’s an early harvest, but growers in the area are crunching their way through tawny corn fields that are yielding a very nice surprise.

Hazen producer Gary Knell said he had to blink a bit at the numbers running through the yield-meter in a field northeast of Hazen late Thursday afternoon.

“It’s quite surprising as far as I’m concerned, to get this yield with the moisture that we had,” he said.

He’s picking up the corn with a combine header used for small grains; unconventional and slow, but it works, he said.

The meter inside the cab was running 91 bushels an acre, but he figured that was slightly on the high side.

But for dry land corn — meaning no irrigation — that’s about 20 percent better than an average crop.

It’s a great corn crop and the earliest ever, by about three weeks. Spring planting was record early by about the same amount because of a warm and open winter.

The corn used up every bit of available surface and subsoil moisture to get that good.

“Now the well is empty. There’s nothing underneath,” Knell said.

Anthony Mock, of rural Kintyre, is a board member for the North Dakota Corn Growers Association, serving the southwest region.

He said he was surprised, too, by the plumped out kernels and a yield of between 90 and 100 bushels an acre in the field he started in this week.

“It’s better than what we thought. A lot of guys are surprised,” he said. Crops like his are hit and miss, depending on who got rain and who didn’t.

But any moisture is long depleted.

“It’s all gone, we’re all out,” Mock said.

Darwyn Mayer, of rural Mott, also an association director, said the corn crop out in his country is above average at 80 bushels, of excellent quality and very dry.

He was hauling straight from the field to Red Trail Energy at Richardton, where the corn is turned into ethanol fuel and cattle feed byproduct.

“I’m a little worried about next year. We were growing on subsoil moisture this year,” Mayer said.

Dry conditions notwithstanding, Mock said he likes being in the corn fields so early in the year.

“It’s nice to be out before the snow and the cold. I've combined in a lot of snow and that's what you call `Not fun,' " he said.

Because it's so dry and there's fire danger, they'll pull a small water trailer around the fields as they harvest.

Corn prices remain high, though not quite as high as last year. Friday’s price was $7.56 a bushel for December corn on the Chicago Board of Trade, down from a record high of $8.49 in mid-August.

Knell, Mock and Mayer are among North Dakota producers who account for the country’s most corn-acres planted since 1937.

In North Dakota, 3.2 million corn acres are expected to yield 336 million bushels.

Next up are sunflowers, also expected to be an excellent crop, at least in places.

That harvest will be early too, aided by an early killing frost that triggered a dry down phase.

Both Knell and Mock said they're much more worried about fire danger in the volatile, oil-based sunflowers than in the corn.

“With the sunflowers, a guy has to be really careful,” Mock said.

Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 701-220-5511 or lauren@westriv.com.