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Fears of new Dust Bowl as heat, drought shrivel corn in Midwest

Across a wide stretch of the Midwest, sweltering temperatures and a lack of rain are threatening what had been expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.
/ Source: The New York Times

Across a wide stretch of the Midwest, sweltering temperatures and a lack of rain are threatening what had been expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.

Already, some farmers in Illinois and Missouri have given up on parched and stunted fields, mowing them over. National experts say parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions. And in at least nine states, conditions in one-fifth to one-half of cornfields have been deemed poor or very poor, federal authorities reported this week, a notable shift from the high expectations of just a month ago.

Crop insurance agents and agricultural economists are watching closely, a few comparing the situation with the devastating drought of 1988, when corn yields shriveled significantly, while some farmers have begun alluding, unhappily, to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Far more is at stake in the coming pivotal days: with the brief, delicate phase of pollination imminent in many states, miles and miles of corn will rise or fall on whether rain soon appears and temperatures moderate.

“It all quickly went from ideal to tragic,” said Don Duvall, a farmer in Illinois who, in what was a virtually rainless June, has watched two of his cornfields dry up and die as others remain in some uncertain in-between.

“Every day that passes, more corn will be abandoned,” Mr. Duvall said. “But even if it starts raining now, there will not be that bumper crop of corn everyone talked about.”

For farmers, especially those without insurance, the pressure mounts, they say, with each check on the morning weather forecast, with every stifling walk through a cloudless field. But the worries have quickly spread: corn prices have risen on the Chicago Board of Trade in recent days on the likelihood of a smaller crop, as analysts weigh the broader prospect of rising prices for food and effects on ethanol production.

“You wake up every morning with that churning in your stomach,” said Eric Aulbach, a farmer here in central Indiana, who gazed out across a field of corn he ought not to be able to gaze across by now.

The plants are short, leaves curling unhappily and with a telltale pale yellow hue rising from stems. Down the road, another farmer’s cornfield is still more shrunken, looking like rows of house plants better suited for a kitchen window.

'There is a lot of praying'
Some experts are less pessimistic, saying the fate of the nation’s corn crop, the largest in the world, cannot be known until later in the summer, after pollination, when it is clear whether kernels or empty spaces fill the ears of corn and whether enough ears appear at all. They note that the driest, hottest conditions have steered clear of some crucial Corn Belt states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and western Iowa, the nation’s most prolific corn producer. In those states, the crop appears healthy and strong — not to mention increasingly valuable. And while much of the nation’s corn is not protected by irrigation, some of it, especially in Nebraska and Kansas, is, though those areas have felt the effects of drought, too, requiring more water and, potentially, driving up costs.

“This is a moving target,” said Darrel L. Good, a professor emeritus of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But what we know is this: There’s been some permanent and substantive yield reduction already, and we’re on the cusp, depending on the weather, of taking that down quite a bit more.”

In its most recent assessment, released on Monday, the Department of Agriculture reported that 48 percent of corn crops nationally were in good or excellent condition, a drop from 56 percent of crops a week earlier. In some states, though, the circumstances were far worse. In Indiana, half of corn crops were designated poor or very poor, and in Illinois, another state among the nation’s top corn producers, only 26 percent of crops were considered good or excellent.

John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said those in the southernmost sections of his state “are close to or past that point of no return,” while elsewhere, “there’s a lot of praying; it’s hanging on by a thread.”

“These 100-degree temperatures are just sucking the life out of everything,” he said.

American farmers had high expectations for corn this year, planting 96.4 million acres of it — a number 5 percent more than the previous year. High prices and an expectation of strong returns made this year’s planting the largest corn acreage in 75 years. Those were heady times in farm country, with farmland prices rising on and on, even as the recovery moved sluggishly in other realms. An uncharacteristically warm March in the Midwest sent hopes still higher, allowing farmers to plant corn weeks earlier than usual. For some crops, including some cherries in Michigan and apples in Indiana, unexpected April frosts then caused damage, but the corn, said Randy Anderson, a farmer in Southern Illinois, went right along beautifully.

And then very little rain fell, and temperatures soared. By last week around corn country, scores of triple-digit heat records were being broken: Jefferson County, Mo., 111 degrees; Evansville, Ind., 107 degrees. That left corn, including Mr. Anderson’s crop, shriveling.

“We’re talking five-feet-tall corn with no ears, no shoots and no tassels,” he said. “It wears on your nerves to even look.”

'Little room for error'
For much of the region, the next few weeks — as the plants’ tassels shed pollen to fertilize the silks and create kernels — are crucial. The endless fields of soybeans are at risk in the Midwestern heat, too, though they are seen as more resilient and able to pollinate later.

But a stressed, withered corn plant may not pollinate at all. “This is a very narrow window for corn, and there’s little room for error,” said Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist for the United States Department of Agriculture. “Whatever happens in that window, it is what it is — that cob is made or broken.”

By midday Wednesday, temperatures hovered in the 100s in St. Louis and Indianapolis. While some forecasts suggested relief in the form of lower temperatures in parts of the Midwest next week, some rain, but not the deluge many here say they need, was predicted.

“All we can do is hope and wait,” Mr. Aulbach said, lifting a handful of Indiana soil and trying to shape it in his fingers, only to watch it slip away, a dusty powder.

This story, "Searing Sun and Drought Shrivel Corn in Midwest," originally appeared in The New York Times.