Weather woes weigh heavily as USDA takes first look at 2013 crops

Source: Amanda Peterka, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013

From May to October last year, north-central Iowa farmer April Hemmes saw a total of 5 inches of rain fall on her 1,000-acre corn and soybean farm.

But although she usually sees 23 inches fall during a growing season, her acres still flourished, each yielding about 168 bushels and selling for high prices in the squeezed corn market. Her farm remained profitable despite the record drought that swept much of the country because her soil still had a healthy amount of moisture beneath the surface.

This year, though, most of that moisture is gone.

“We depend on rain that falls from the sky. Very little of our ground is irrigated. To say that I’m a bit worried about this next growing season is the biggest understatement of the world,” said Hemmes, who has been farming her land for the past 28 years.

Many farmers are facing the same — or worse — going into this year’s growing season. In some areas in the Southwest, two years’ worth of drought has ravaged the land. Farmers in Texas have been forced to switch from rice to less water-intensive crops, while tight water supplies have sparked political fights.

Two highly anticipated reports from the Department of Agriculture tomorrow will provide the first snapshot of what to expect across the country in the 2013 season.

One will look at grain stocks in the country, while the other will offer the first crop predictions of the year that are based on real-life data gathered from surveys of what farmers are planning to put into the ground.

Traders will use the reports to help set prices for commodities through the rest of the year.

“The information we collect from producers during the first two weeks of March establishes a trend that we’re likely to see in the entire growing season,” Bob Bass, director of the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s National Operations Division, said in a statement. “[A]fter a weather-plagued 2012 season, it’s more important than ever to understand planting intentions for this year.”

Analysts are predicting very tight grain stocks stemming from last year’s drought, while they are projecting that farmers will increase the acres of corn they plant over last year’s numbers. It is likely that soybean acreage will be near the same level as last year.

Earlier in the year, USDA projected an average corn yield of 163.6 bushels per acre and a total corn crop of 14.53 billion bushels, up 35 percent from last year. The corn price is expected to drop from $7.20 to $4.80, providing some relief for livestock producers by the end of the year.

There is still much up in the air, though, according to University of Illinois agricultural economist Darrel Good.

“The likelihood of some planting delays, along with lingering drought conditions in western areas, provides the basis for considerable yield uncertainty for corn in 2013,” Good wrote this week in the university’s Farmdoc Daily online publication.

Enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program, a USDA program that pays farmers to idle their lands for conservation reasons, has dropped in the past year, and it’s also still uncertain how many former CRP acres will be put into crop production.

And once crops are in the ground, the rest will be left to Mother Nature.

“For us to have good production, it is very important that we have good weather. That’s the way agriculture is,” said American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman late last week.

Hemmes said she expects to have enough moisture in the ground to plant her corn and soybean crops, but after that she’ll be anxiously relying on every drop that falls from the sky.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has predicted above-normal temperatures next month, when growers start putting seeds into the ground throughout much of the United States. The predicted rise in temperatures has some worried about substantial flooding in some places and continuing drought conditions in others (ClimateWire, March 22).

“Farmers are looking at the weather patterns, trying to figure out what it means to them personally, hoping for the best, preparing for the worst,” Stallman said. “That’s what farmers do.”