Mark Nelson muscles a shovel into a row between spindly soybean plants. Finally, six or more inches into the ground he hits some clay that holds a hint, but just a hint, of moisture.
“It’s just not enough,” said the farmer who works about 2,000 acres in Miami County with his son-in-law. “If we don’t get some rain pretty soon …” His voice trails off.
It’s so dry here, as the old joke goes, that trees are bribing dogs.
In Nelson’s corn fields — the plants more vulnerable to drought than beans — crops look like corpses. Hair-dryer winds have given way to more moderate breezes this week, yet the ground remains kiln-dry.
Spring rains quit early in the Midwest. In fact, they barely came. Summer storms never struck with enough moisture to keep soil from turning to dust and some corn and soybean fields from going bust.
The parching of the region has already led some growers to cut their corn for silage, the farmer’s version of salvage. That same scorching of America’s grain belt could bump up prices at the pump and the grocery store.
At a time when the world’s appetite for corn has never been greater — to fatten our cattle, to make our chips, to sweeten our soda and to fuel our cars — a relentless drought has made kernels into crisps.
Not since the late 1980s has the nation’s midsection seen the corn crop so battered by lack of rain. Where leaves of emerald would normally dangle eight and nine feet above the ground, dung-colored ribbons droop and crackle while tassels barely reach eye level.
“I don’t want to say things are lost. I don’t like to be pessimistic,” Nelson said. “If we could get a good rain here pretty soon, we might able to save something.”
As David Barfield, the chief engineer for the Kansas Division of Water Resources, said: “The whole state is in some form of drought.”
Things are so dry that even in eastern Kansas some landowners will soon be barred from irrigating their crops. Unlike the drier Great Plains to the west, it’s a region where few irrigate anyway. In most years, it’s simply not necessary.
In western Kansas, where few crops ever survive without regular sprinkling from giant center-pivot irrigating systems, the watering is near constant.
A similar story is being played out across the grain-producing regions of the country. In Missouri, Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, the country’s corn crop is fast drying up. More than 50 percent of the Midwest is considered in the midst of moderate to serious drought. That region accounted for six of every 10 bushels of corn harvested last year.
Meteorologists see no significant or widespread break in the toasty dry spell.
Come September, estimates the U.S. Department of Agriculture, America’s corn stockpiles will stand at just over 1.2 billion bushels. That’s 35 percent lower than the government guessed a month ago. Corn prices, likewise, continued to rise Tuesday on those projections to over $7.74 a bushel for supplies set for delivery in December.
In the 18 states that grow most of the corn in the country, the Agriculture Department said this week, 30 percent of the crop is in poor or very poor condition. A week ago, the agency estimated just 22 percent was in trouble.
In short, bushels are evaporating by the minute.
Although harvest is still a full season away, the impact is being felt already.
Many cattle ranchers have found grass pastures so thinned by the drought that they have had to turn to feeding their cattle with hay, when they can find it, much earlier than usual. Others are rushing their calves to the sale barn.
“There’s no pasture and almost no hay to be found, and what you can find you can’t afford,” said Mickey Walker, who raises cattle and works at the Ozarks Regional Stockyards in West Plains, Mo. “A lot of people are getting rid of their cattle.”
Some will be sent to feed lots earlier than they usually would, or shipped to areas in the northern Midwest where the drought has been less severe.
“We’re hearing stories that this is as bad as 1988 or 1980 or even as bad as the ’30s in some places,” said Eddie Hamill, the Missouri director of the USDA Farm Service Agency.
The drought does follow a particularly bountiful wheat season, and from roughly 2004 through 2010, Midwestern farmers were blessed with bumper crops and rising grain prices. That girded them for the summer of 2012 and the losses many anticipate.
Still, they’re looking at tough choices. If they cut their corn fields to harvest silage — feeding crunchy corn stalks to livestock — they won’t recover what they’ve invested in seed, herbicides and fertilizer. Even then, the corn can be too chock full of nitrates when downed this early to feed to some animals. Most farmers do carry crop insurance. But typically at least 25 percent of the value of a field’s harvest must be lost before the insurance payments kick in.
“It’s awfully early in the season,” said Kent Askren of the Kansas Farm Bureau, “for things to be so dry.”
The drought hit just as tassels sprung and pollination was set to begin. That meant that the silk in the corn ears wasn’t kick-started into action, and row upon row of kernels never sprung to life.
“We could deal with this heat if it came with rain,” said Cody Sloan, the agricultural and natural resource agent for Kansas State University Research and Extension in Miami County. “We’re just not set up for it.”
Corn today is far more than a starchy side dish. It’s second only to petroleum as a fuel source.
In fact, the drought might be as hard on the ethanol industry as any other. While oil prices have been in decline, ethanol producers must pay more for their raw material. Prices for corn are up 76 cents a bushel, or 11.6 percent, over a year ago. Meantime, ethanol prices are down almost 7 percent.
“You’ve seen a few plants go idle. You’ve seen a few operating at less than 100 percent,” said Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the ethanol-promoting Renewable Fuels Association. “It’s not what we’re hoping for.”
Likewise, Nick Guetterman hasn’t seen what he wants in the 10,000 acres he farms with three brothers and his father in Miami and Johnson counties.
In an average year, his corn fields might yield 125 bushels to an acre. If replenishing rains come soon, Guetterman figures he might squeeze 30 to 40 bushels per acre. If significant rain doesn’t arrive in the next few weeks, he reckons on no more than 25 bushels per acre. Or maybe none.
“It’s looking more and more every day,” Guetterman said, “like it’s lost.”