After Drought, Rains Plaguing Midwest Farms

Source: By JOHN ELIGON, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Steve Hebert for The New York Times “This is the worst spring I can remember,” said Rob Korff of Missouri, who planted his corn a month late because of the weather.

NORBORNE, Mo. — About this time last year, farmers were looking to the heavens, pleading for rain. Now, they are praying for the rain to stop.

One of the worst droughts in this nation’s history, a dry spell that persisted through the early part of this year, has ended with torrential rains this spring that have overwhelmed vast stretches of the country, including much of the farm belt. One result has been flooded acres that have drowned corn and soybean plants, stunted their growth or prevented them from being planted at all.

With fields, dusty and dry one moment, muddy and saturated the next, farmers face a familiar fear — that their crops will not make it.

“This is the worst spring I can remember in my 30 years farming,” said Rob Korff, who plants 3,500 acres of corn and soybeans here in northwestern Missouri. “Just continuous rain, not having an opportunity to plant. It can still be a decent crop, but as far as a good crop or a great crop, that’s not going to happen.”

As farmers go through the ritual of examining every weather map and every tick on the futures boards, trying to divine if and how their pocketbooks can survive another curveball from nature, they are also keeping an eye on Washington, where Congress is still bickering over the farm bill. Farmers are hoping that lawmakers will maintain taxpayer-subsidized crop insurance and other support programs that will help them get through disasters like floods and drought.

Another year of mediocre crop yields could well trickle down to consumers, though agriculture experts insist that it is too early to rule out a robust harvest of corn and soybeans for this year.

“If there’s a shortage of corn and soybeans, and feed costs are higher,” said Bill Northey, the Iowa agriculture secretary, “there’s certainly a possibility that well down the road — six months or a year after that harvest — that you end up seeing higher meat prices than you would have if you’d had a full supply.”

Still, last year’s poor production had only a minor effect on food prices, analysts say, and even with the early planting problems, they expect better yields this year.

Since the beginning of the year, parts of the Mississippi River basin, from eastern Minnesota down through Illinois and Missouri, have received up to three times their normal precipitation. Storm systems also brought flooding to parts of Montana and the Dakotas, and into Nebraska, Iowa and Oklahoma. Iowa, the nation’s top corn producer, had a record 17.66 inches of precipitation this spring.

Just over 44 percent of the country remains in drought, down more than 9 percentage points from the beginning of March.

Ideally, farmers need the top two to four inches of soil to be dry when they are planting so that when they drive their tractors in the field they do not pack down the mud, which prevents the roots from getting oxygen. Oversaturated earth also means that pockets where oxygen can filter through to help the roots breathe will instead be filled with water. Ideally, the moisture should be in the soil directly below the seed.

With rain falling day after day, farmers have been hard pressed to find windows of time when they have dry topsoil to get into their fields to plant. The task has been made harder by lower temperatures and cloudy skies that prevent the land from drying even when it is not raining. Many farmers find themselves more than a month behind in their planting, and some have even given up on planting all their seeds. Late planting could stunt the growth of crops, decreasing production once harvest rolls around.

On May 12, 28 percent of the nation’s corn crop had been planted, compared with 85 percent on the same day last year. As of the United States Department of Agriculture’s latest report, released last week, 91 percent of corn had been planted by June 2, compared with 100 percent a year earlier.

This year, the Agriculture Department had estimated that 97.3 million acres of corn, the most since 1936, would be planted, and that a record 14.14 billion bushels would result from them.

Now, there is concern that “not as much corn was planted as had been indicated,” Joseph W. Glauber, the department’s chief economist, wrote in an e-mail, and “that yields will be adversely affected because plantings were less.”

Mr. Korff, 44, planted all his corn in the middle of May, about a month later than usual, and he has yet to plant any of his soybeans because there has not been a long enough break in the weather, he said. This area about an hour east of Kansas City has already gotten 23.6 inches of rain this year, four inches shy of the total for all of last year.

By this time, three weeks after planting, Mr. Korff said, his corn should be waist high. But instead, his crop looks like rows of small blades of grass, with the plants popping about only four inches out of the ground. The leaves are a pale yellow with brown lesions. Some patches of the field are bald, washed away by the rains. The earth is mucky and chocolate brown in some spots. A narrow stream of water slices through it.

“It doesn’t have the appearance I like to see,” Mr. Korff said.

But on an optimistic note, he said all it would take would be about a week of temperatures in the 80s or 90s and the corn could shoot up.

The rain has benefited some farm operations, however.

“This has been a great spring for cattlemen — just absolutely perfect,” said Kyle Kirby, who has a herd of 2,500 cattle in Liberal, Mo., which has had 29.13 inches of precipitation this year, about a foot more than in the same period last year.

The rain has replenished the pasture grass that cattle eat and has filled the ponds and streams where they drink. During last year’s drought, pastures were a charred brown, and evaporated ponds became nothing more than divots of parched earth. The refreshed pastures will also mean an abundance of hay to feed cattle. Hay was in such short supply last year that prices skyrocketed. Mr. Kirby said he was paying as much as $250 for a ton of hay last year, about two and a half times the normal price.

Still, Mr. Kirby is tempering his excitement. This spring has taught him that the whim that brought moisture could just as cruelly take it back.

“It doesn’t matter how wet it is today,” he said. “We’re just two weeks away from a drought.”