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Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Midwest Drought Highest In Decades

Story first reported from USA TODAY

CLUNETTE, Ind. – Ask Craig Ganshorn how his corn crop is faring and he winces before replying that it's basically burnt up.

Ganshorn, 62, who has farmed 500 acres of corn and soybeans here since 1976, is confronting the grim realities of a drought that he says is worse than the one in 1988 that's remembered as among the worst in U.S. history.

Ganshorn's farm is in Kosciusko County, which is in extreme drought. He figures he won't get much return on his corn crop but hopes his soybeans, which are hardier and pollinate later than corn, will survive.

He's already calculated what this hot, dry summer means to his bottom line. Ruining hopes of buying a newer used combine to replace his rickety old one, farm machine sheds, he says, and his vacation plans to visit Colorado.

Searing temperatures and below-normal rainfall across a broad swath of the USA have created a drought that is killing crops and drying up streams. More than 1,000 counties have been declared natural disaster areas, giving farmers access to low-interest loans. Mississippi River water levels in some areas are nearing record lows. The conditions have prompted water-use restrictions in Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere, increased risk of wildfires and a marketplace domino effect that could mean more expensive groceries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week dropped the estimated average corn yield by 12%. That means higher prices for corn, which forces livestock producers to liquidate herds because feed is too expensive. That, in turn, could mean higher prices for meat and dairy products next year because there will be fewer cattle, hogs and cows.

Food prices already are ticking upward. The Labor Department said Tuesday that food costs rose 0.2% in June from a month earlier and are up 2.7% from June 2011.

The culprit is a weather pattern that produced dry conditions in the middle of the country starting last fall, says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. Those conditions were exacerbated by a winter that was warmer and drier than normal, he says.

Fuchs says almost 61% of the country (not including Alaska and Hawaii) is currently in drought, quite higher than compared to just 29% a year ago. About 78% of the country's corn-growing regions are in drought, as well. The Palmer Drought Severity Index says this drought covers the largest percentage of the contiguous USA since December 1956.There isn't much good news in long-term weather forecasts. Fuchs says the forecast isn't expected to change from the current trend.

Crops Are Withering

In the Clunette area, some of the drought's effects are obvious. Corn stalks are 4 or 5 feet high, about half what they should be at this point in the summer, and nobody has to mow their lawn anymore. Grass is brown and dead, and farmers are conserving water for irrigating their fields — though even some watered corn is struggling.

The drought's effects are causing alarm across the Midwest:

  • The Arkansas River near Syracuse, Kan., last week had less than 1 cubic foot per second of water flowing in it. The historical mean flow: 394 cubic feet per second. The flow was the lowest recorded for this time of year since records began in 1902, says Brian Loving, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist in Lawrence, Kan.
  • The temperature of the water flowing in the Wakarusa River, southeast of Topeka, reached 103 degrees on July 7, Loving says. High water temperatures reduce the amount of oxygen available in the stream to fish and other aquatic life. He says it could be the worst drought seen since records began a little more than 100 years ago.
  • Randy Miles, a soil scientist at the University of Missouri-Columbia, stuck a probe into a farm field on Monday and found no moisture more than 5 feet deep. In a normal year, he would expect only the top 12-16 inches to be dry.
  • Current conditions, he says, mean that crops will not thrive. The drought, Miles says, affects everything from earthworms, which must bore deeper to find moisture, to nutrients in the soil.
  • Kent Lorens, who raises livestock, wheat and corn on a 3,400-acre farm near Stratton, Neb., is giving his cows and calves protein supplements because the dry grass they're eating doesn't provide enough nutrition. They're drinking 20 or 30 gallons of water daily instead of the usual 10, he says.
  • At Honker Hill Winery near Carbondale, Ill., plants are beginning to shed their leaves as if they're dying, and many grapes are drying up, as well, says manager Stan South. Wine is still being made from last year's excellent crop, he says, but he says he is considering the purchase of irrigation equipment instead of new farm machine sheds for his operations.
  • Salesman Mark Holzum says foot traffic at Heuer Sons Implement Co. in Cape Girardeau, Mo., is a quarter of what it normally is this time of year as farmers scrap or postpone equipment purchases, although the need for irrigation tires is an issue.  

Close to Total Failure

Iowa and Illinois are the top corn-producing states, according to the USDA, and usually account for about one-third of the U.S. crop. Indiana typically ranks fifth, says Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. Much of Iowa is abnormally dry or in moderate drought, but its situation is not as bad as the one in Illinois and Indiana.

About 61% of Indiana's corn crop is rated poor or very poor — the worst of any major corn-producing state, Hurt says, and close to total failure.
At this point in 1988, 90% of Indiana's corn was rated in those two bottom categories. The current drought is not as intense as in 1988, but he says it is the closest comparable drought.

Tell that to Bruce Ferguson, who walked into the Clunette Elevator Co. — which helps manage and stores crops — one day last week with a 6-inch ear of corn with silk hanging from it. The corn had not pollinated, which means that it would never produce full rows of kernels.

Multiply that one ear by all the unirrigated corn planted on Ferguson's 1,400-acre farm for a sense of what the drought means to him. Only about 150 acres are irrigated, he says. Ferguson, 60, who has farmed here since 1978, says he is fairly prepared to face a full crop failure.
Only a "minimal amount" of his crop was insured, and Ferguson estimates his eventual losses at about $500,000 unless conditions change. The corn could rebound if it would rain 2-3 inches every week, he said.

John Anglin, the elevator's co-owner, doesn't expect a reprieve. He expects many crops to be total losses. Although some farmers will recoup most of their losses through insurance, that's no consolation, he says, as they take pride in successful crops, rather than soley the monetary value of crops.

Meredith Powell, the Clunette Elevator's entomologist, says the drought is creating expensive problems that go beyond dryness. She says insects thrive in the dry environment. Dry soil encourages Goss's bacterial wilt, which affects corn, she says, and the elevator is doing aerial spraying to try to eradicate adult corn rootworm beetles and spider mites, which attack soybeans.

John Powell, 55, who farms 2,000 acres here, faces a couple of big decisions in the next few days. Fungicides and herbicides that would help keep surviving corn healthy would set him back another $13-$15 an acre, he says.
Powell raises ducks with his brother-in-law and already has taken a big hit on that venture because of the drought. A couple of weekends ago when the temperature hit 104 degrees, 1,700 ducks died in a single day, he says.

Miles, the soil scientist, says the drought is so widespread and severe that even a return of regular rainfall through fall won't be enough to end it, and is wishing for a wet fall and plenty of snow this winter.

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