IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Corn farmers' hopes are dashed by the flood

Across the Corn Belt states of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, many farmers are looking at a bleak harvest after a planting season that started out with the promise of great riches.
Midwest Flooding Farmers
Bill Talsma walks across one of his flood damaged corn fields near Colfax, Iowa. Flooding destroyed nearly a quarter of the crop Talsma and his brother were growing on 9,000 acres in central Iowa, and soaking rains damaged the rest.Charlie Neibergall / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

This year's corn crop was Bill Talsma's lottery ticket — a potentially record-setting haul worth millions.

Then came the flood.

The raging rivers and streams destroyed nearly a quarter of the crop Talsma and his brother were growing on about 75 percent of their 9,000 acres in Iowa, and drenching rains damaged the rest. Had all his corn come in, Talsma could have seen a profit of as much as $6 million.

Now, he will be lucky to bring home a fraction of that.

"I was counting on this being one of my best years ever, but now it's one that you just want to get behind you," the 50-year-old Talsma said.

Across the Corn Belt states of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri, many farmers are looking at a bleak harvest after a planting season that started out with the promise of great riches.

The reason farmers were optimistic: Corn prices have been climbing to all-time highs in recent months — from $3.75 per bushel in mid-2007 to $7.25 in the past few days — because of increased demand from livestock producers, overseas markets and the ethanol industry, which relies almost entirely on corn.

But a wet, cold spring tamped down expectations of a bumper crop. Then came the flooding.

In Iowa, the No. 1 corn-producing state, the Iowa Farm Bureau has pegged the corn losses at $1.5 billion, plus $1.5 billion in soybean losses. It is still unclear how much damage the corn crop has suffered nationwide, because the flooding is not over.

"That's the big question of the hour," said Pat Westhoff, an economist with the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

Consumers will see the effects in higher food and ethanol prices. But for farmers it's more personal.

Although the water has receded from Talsma's land, thick mud and large ponds of water remain. Corn that should be waist-high has barely poked out of the ground in some of Talsma's low-lying fields along Interstate 80 east of Des Moines. The plants in the fields where the water has drained are sickly looking and probably won't grow to maturity.

The flooded land cannot be replanted with corn this late in the growing season, since an early frost in the fall could damage or kill the crop and waste any money spent on replanting. As for growing something else, it is still too wet in many fields to plant soybeans.

The math is brutal: With corn selling for $7.25 per bushel, and a reasonable yield of 180 bushels per acre, Talsma and his brother should have cleared about $1,300 an acre. Overhead on the farm — expenses such as fuel, chemicals and fertilizer — average about $400 an acre, leaving a profit of $900. On 6,750 acres of corn, that's $6.1 million.

But the flood destroyed 20 percent of the crop. Talsma expects yields on the remaining ground of roughly 60 bushels an acre, cutting his profit in a best-case scenario to less than $200,000. Realistically, he expects to recover only his costs through crop insurance.

"I'll probably hold my expenses together, but there will be no income," he said.

For some farmers, the losses could extend past the missed payday. Farmers often sell a portion of their crop in advance through futures contracts that guarantee a certain price for a specified number of bushels. Last fall, when corn was selling for between $3.50 and $4 a bushel but futures were trading at $5, a farmer might have decided to sell thousands of bushels through such contracts.

Now, farmers without any corn to deliver could be forced to buy it at today's $7 price to meet contracts that will pay them only $5.

"When you've lost three-fourths of your crop and all of a sudden you've forward-contracted half of it, you're already behind the eight ball," said Virgil Schmitt, a specialist with the Iowa State University Extension Service.

Some farmers, expecting a premium price for corn, may have bought new equipment or paid higher land rental costs.

"Hopefully those people had adequate crop insurance to cover those eventualities," Schmitt said.

The most expensive policies cover losses on a farmer's entire crop, based on the prevailing market price. Cheaper policies only cover a portion of the losses. Federal disaster aid for farmers will pay for some losses not covered by insurance in counties declared eligible by the government.

About a third of Phil Winborn's corn and soybean crop near Iowa City is still under several feet of water. He said the crop on that land is ruined and he will have to work to get the soil back in shape for planting next year. Like Talsma, Winborn said that even land that escaped the flooding was damaged by heavy rains.

"Even the ones we got planted in a good timely manner are looking pretty terrible because they've just been sitting in water," he said.

There is some good news: Flooded-out farmers will probably still have a chance next year to cash in on the high price of corn. Low yields this year, along with continuing strong demand for ethanol, are likely to keep prices high, said Scott Irwin, professor of agricultural marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Jim Brown, whose 2,500 acres in Iowa were flooded by rain, said: "It's Mother Nature. We deal with it every day. We still have our houses and our livelihood. The water will disappear and we'll go back at it."