Corn crop could be a total loss

U.S. corn areas that are experiencing drought as of July10, 2012. Graphic by USDA World Agricultural Outlook Board, retrieved from Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Current drought conditions are wreaking havoc on farms. As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker,

It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well. High commodity prices spurred farmers to sow more acres this year, and unseasonable warmth in March prompted many to plant corn early. Just a few months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture was projecting a record corn crop of 14.79 billion bushels. But then, in June and July, came broilingly high temperatures, combined with a persistent drought across much of the midsection of the country.

“You couldn’t choreograph worse weather conditions for pollination,” Fred Below, a crop biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Bloomberg News recently. “It’s like farming in Hell.”

Rob Schultz reported the local version of this story last Friday for the Wisconsin State Journal:

As the drought in southern Wisconsin was re-classified as severe Thursday, much of the area’s corn crop could be lost if significant rain doesn’t fall here in the next seven days. And it looks like neither Mother Nature nor Uncle Sam are going to help.

“It’s pretty dire,” said Landmark Services Cooperative agronomist Joe Speich, who estimated 2 to 3 inches of rain was needed in the next week to salvage southern Wisconsin’s corn. Just 0.31 inches of rain has fallen since June 1, and the National Weather Service forecasts no drought-busting rains in the next week, although there is a 50 percent chance for showers and thunderstorms Friday and Saturday.

Speich said the lack of moisture has shut down the field corn’s pollination process in the critical 10 days after it tassels. “If it doesn’t pollinate, there’s no ear,” Speich added. “That’s the reason it can become a total loss. You’ve got that 10-day window and that’s it.” Farmers without crop insurance are learning they have little chance of receiving any financial help because federal provisions for drought relief expired last year.

Like the suffering corn fields, livestock pastures are bone-dry and may force local livestock farmers to think about selling off their herds, as Bill Novak reported yesterday for The Capital Times. For more on the impact in southern Wisconsin, check out Karen Kerzog’s recent piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Also, see the longer-term outlook posted today by Alex Sosnowski at AccuWeather, suggesting that the little bit of rain we just had may not be enough to make a big difference.

What’s the source of this drought? Kolbert’s article pins the blame on global climate change, something she’s been writing about for quite some time. Her 2006 book, Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, is available in paperback or e-book. (Check out this review at Grist.) For a more recent and shorter piece, take a look at her list of the Top Ten Signs We Are Living in a Warming World: 2011 Edition.


One comment

  1. Little Sis

    While I wouldn’t mind it if HFCS got more expensive so that food choices were better balanced, I am full of sorrow for farmers and I am dismayed by our nation’s continued refusal to take these issues more seriously. Thanks for sharing this important info.

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