Farmer in the drought – if you plant it, it might not come
July 24th, 2012
12:45 PM ET
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Brian Scott farms with his father and grandfather on 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. They grow corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat and he blogs about it at The Farmer's Life.

As we seeded our corn, soybeans, and popcorn on our Indiana farm this spring, there were many reasons to think that we would harvest a fantastic crop this fall. To start, we had a new John Deere planter equipped to help us plant with greater efficiency and accuracy than ever before. Then March came with temperatures 20-30 degrees above normal. Warm temperatures and dry conditions meant a very early start to planting on our farm. It seemed that with a long growing season ahead that the sky was limit for yield. That seems forever ago now.

A change in the weather

In a normal year (I'm not sure that's a real thing) we might start planting around the middle of April. This year we began on March 29. A March planting date for corn and soybeans is all but unheard of in Northern Indiana, but with daily high temps pushing 80 degrees instead of more typical mid-50s field conditions were right.

We talked about the risk of an April frost damaging young plants. In the end, we decided to go ahead with field work thinking we would have a head start when the rains came and pushed us out of the field.

Feds offer help to drought-stricken farmers

The rain never really did come for much of the United States. In fact, we stopped planting for five or six days to wait for chances of rain to develop. To stop planting because we'd like to see more moisture in the soil to aid germination is a strange thing for us. Usually we are waiting for fields to dry out so we can plant in the right conditions. But at the time, waiting for rain was not a big deal. Planting was still two to three weeks ahead of schedule, and with our new, wider planter we were covering 10 acres per hour more than last year. No need to get in a big hurry. It was best to wait for conditions to improve.

Going into June crops could not have looked better. I don't recall corn looking so good and so tall early in the season. "Knee high by the Fourth of July" is a goal that was achieved in late May and early June in all our fields. But it hadn't rained more than a few tenths at a time for several weeks, and those rains were few and far between.

We were impressed how great the fields looked despite the lack of moisture. We actually saw that as a good sign because we've had so much rain the last few years that crops didn't put down very extensive root systems. This year plants got to put roots down deep. That's better than shallow roots if the rain suddenly stops in a wet year.

corn fields

As June rolled on, it just didn't rain. And it got hotter. A lot hotter. Daytime temperatures in the 90s became the norm. 100+ degree days came around far too often. By the time July 1 came around, the corn crop hadn't put on much more growth. I began saying that although corn looked very tall a month previous, it now seemed short taking into consideration how early the crop had been planted. Then it started to put on tassels and enter the pollination phase. That's when we first started to get concerned.

Impacts on 2012

Excessive heat is hard on a corn field trying to pollinate. Compared to soybeans, corn has a short window to successfully pollinate. Over the last week we have been in the fields sampling ears of corn. There are a surprising number of ears that I would call very nice ears in a good year. There are also ears that are very small, and some partially pollinated - which means they are not filled with kernels. And there are plants out there with no ears at all.

It's difficult to estimate what yield will be when harvest begins because we are finding a lot of inconsistency when we are scouting. Right now, we think crops on our best land could yield around 120 bushels of corn to the acre. That's about 50 bushels an acre lower than our five-year average. Ironically we received a much needed two inches of rainfall the night after CNN covered the drought from our our farm, but no amount of rain is going to improve our corn crop at this point.

Pollination is a one-time deal for corn. So whatever is out there now is the best we can get this year. If things cool off and some rains come we will gladly welcome them, but at this point our corn crop can only maintain its current potential. Should heat and drought persist, yields will continue to fall.

At this point I'm confident we will have a crop to harvest although all of our farm is considered to be under severe or extreme drought. Other parts of the country have it worse than we do. Farms in Illinois are mowing down corn crops. Fields intended for grain production have been harvested for silage of marginal quality to be used as feed for cattle. Ranchers are selling off their herds in record numbers because they don't have the resources to feed their animals.

I can find a few positive outcomes during this long period of drought. We still have some of last year's corn and bean crop in storage on the farm. Suddenly those stored bushels have become quite valuable. We just sold a few truckloads of waxy corn for $9 a bushel. That's very high. A historic high for our farm actually. Prices for new crops are soaring as well. Although unfortunate circumstances have brought about higher prices, it's the market at work that will help us minimize our financial losses along with crop insurance.

What fall will bring

It's been a tough year, and it's not over yet. Harvest can be such an exciting time of year but this year, few Midwestern farmers will look forward to it. Here's what I expect:

– I will have had months of watching our crops fail to meet their potential. Already as I walk through our fields, I see them decline a little more each day.

– Watching combine harvest yield monitors, some of the numbers are going to make me feel sick.

– We will start thinking about spring 2013. Hopefully next year we will learn what impact the changes in equipment and practices we made this year will have.

– We will feel the pinch of a really bad year. I know our farm will continue on. I can't speak for all farms, but I can speak for ours. I'll hope the same goes for my neighbors and friends. I'm confident we'll be a farming family for a long time to come and this is why.

My dad said it best in the Journal & Courier last week. “It’s hard emotionally. Farmers work to be successful at all levels. We work to raise a good product. We have to get over that, manage our losses and go on.”

This drought will pass, and we will be out next spring with renewed hope of a bumper crop.

Images courtesy of iReporters Emilee Trenter and Kelda Lush

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soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. don

    Edwina,there is enough hot air blowing around this summer.We dont need anymore from you!Try to help instead of hurt.

    August 3, 2012 at 12:38 pm |
  2. scott bleyle

    guess we will all just eat our diversified stock portfolio's

    July 27, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  3. Kyle

    It's been a crazy season for us farmers. Started off with a wet spring, and I mean WET! After that, it seemed like there was no more moisture all summer. Amazingly though, the corn was beginning to tassel here in SW MN on July 4th. Blew our "knee high by the 4th of July" saying out of the water!

    July 26, 2012 at 1:50 pm |
  4. Wastrel

    Yeah. This is the way it's always been for farmers, for 10,000 years or so. The crop depends on the weather.

    Those of you who criticize subsidies need to think about how it was before subsidies. The way a farmer got started every year was to take out a mortgage on his land. Imagine if you had to mortgage your house every year to buy gas to get to work, so you'd have the money from your job to pay off the mortgage. You'd want a gas subsidy.

    July 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm |
    • donaheller

      That is a great analogy!

      July 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm |
  5. Truth

    Corn may get the highest amount of subsidies, but it's not the most subsidized crop. That would be cotton.

    As for Ethanol production. Ethanol is a pipe dream that needs to go away, but it has little real effect on the price of corn. What little is going towards Ethanol production isn't even taken out of the food supply. The crumbled pieces that are left over are still used in the making of feed for livestock.

    What's driving the cost of grain up is demand. The more people there are equates directly to a need for more food. It's simple economics. However, those high prices don't equate to more in the bank. Input costs go up pretty much proportionately. Fertilizer, seed, equipment, fuel, and so on goes up along with the price of grain. Last year, I never made so much on my crop, but had so little at the end of the day. High price of land hurts as well. The more ground goes for, the higher my land is valued and so I have to pay higher property taxes.

    Oh, anyone that thinks farming is just working a few weeks in the fall and spring and then all we do is sit around and wait for the money to roll in is just patently ignorant. That's so far off the mark that I have to seriously question the intelligence of person making the statement.

    July 26, 2012 at 8:34 am |
  6. Notadolt

    Farmers are the nation's biggest welfare recipients, with special subsidies, grants, tax breaks and loan rates, plus price protections and lots of under-reported income. A few weeks of work in spring and fall, but lots of recreation time. Crybabies who should buy their own insurance for any losses...

    July 26, 2012 at 8:03 am |
    • Lee

      Do you know any farmers that have a lot of leisure time? I grew up on a farm, my dad and the guys who worked on the farm were some of the hardest working people that I knew. Even if they are not planting a crop or harvesting a crop there is work to be done. Keep in mind that without farmers you would have NO food to eat. Big corporations may farm but you have no guarantee about what you are getting. Big corporations get the same subsidies, low interest rates, federal help as the family farms. If family farms, as you say they should, go out and by crop insurance to cover everything with no expectation of government help then you would not be able to afford to eat. The food would be too expensive for the majority of America. Food isn't created by Publix, Winn-Dixie, or any of the national chain grocery stores. They have to get that food from somewhere and it starts with the farmers.

      July 26, 2012 at 9:53 am |
    • start with OPEC example

      Notadolt: you are a dolt. Uber cheap production of food in third world countries (because those people literally starve and live in filth) means U.S. farmers are competing with their crop prices. Allowing food production to exclusively come from these other countries will mean incredible power for those very countries who could literally starve our nation into submission. Stop being an uneducated idiot and read up on food security. Start with the very real example of OPEC on oil monopoly and you will understand why subsidies exist to allow U.S. food production to continue. Farmers pay taxes here and have a standard of living which you also enjoy. They need to sell at a price to maintain that. Get educated.

      July 26, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • Billy

      So you are planning on becoming a farmer and are encouraging your children to become farmers also?

      July 27, 2012 at 8:14 am |
  7. Patrick Horan

    I for one have THE most respect and admiration for the American farmer. The dawn to dusk hours, the unpredictable elements, the immense investments. where would we all be without them! GOD bless the American farmer and please GOD let it flipping rain for all our sake!!

    July 25, 2012 at 10:29 pm |
  8. Richard

    Boo hoo! Farmers are sitting on gold mines thanks to using corn for ethanol. Farm land prices are at record highs (contrast that with house and land prices for living!) and corn farm incomes have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, so much food relies on corn that prices for everything from processed foods to meat (feedstock) have jumped up 100% in some cases. The greenie ethanol binge has resulted in more increased poverty in the Third World than inflation in the 1970's did.

    July 25, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
    • Lora

      How does high farm land cost benefit farmers?? Unless they plan to sell out, that only makes it more difficult to expand their operations. And yes, corn prices are sky high right now because there will only be a small fraction brought to elevators this fall compared to a normal year. Obviously food costs will be higher because of the drought but do you not realize that farmers still need to buy food and fuel, too? How about the farmers who raise cattle and will not have enough hay and grain to feed their herd through the fall and winter months??

      The drought isn't just "boo hoo" for the farmers, it negatively impacts our entire country.

      July 25, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
  9. c s

    According to Republican doctrine and their anointed leader Romney, if you cannot make it then go bankrupt. Funny all of those staunch Republican farmers love capitalism until they have trouble and then they want Uncle Sam to bail them out. Being a Democrat, I beleive in helping the farmers when a natural disaster befalls them like this drought. I just wish more of those farmers would remember who helps them when they are in trouble.

    During the Great Depression millions of farmer were foreclosed and lost their farms. FDR and the Democrats tried to create government programs to save the family farm and had to fight the Republicans all the time. Somethings never change. I guess all of the farmers who will go bankrupt because of this drought will learn a lesson too late. Republicans love you when you are rich and despise you when you need help.

    July 25, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
    • liberal weenie

      i can only guess what CS stands for?? but Monica was a good one

      July 25, 2012 at 8:51 pm |
  10. carl nelson

    Recipients of Corn Subsidies** from farms in United States totaled $4,610,000,000 in in 2011. (EWG farm subsidy data base)

    July 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
    • thermion7

      yeah... that number sounds about right.
      Corn is americas #1 crop...we are the number 1 producer in the world by far and the #1 exporter of Corn in the world.
      Corn also has the #1 subsidy. I dont agree with all or understand all of the subsidy programs... but they are set in place to Allow farmers to re-invest in next years crop.... even after having a bad year... since Food production is valuable as National security issue... there is a National Agricultural Policy to help it be efficient.

      July 25, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
  11. thermion7

    It's unfortunate – Corn for most of the country... is really beyond saving at this point in the growing season. Other crops are hopefully salvageable.
    The US is the #1 grower and exporter of corn for the world... Mexico is the #4 grower... and their drought is even worse than ours... The #2 grower is Argentina who had a drought and also caps their exports of corn. The #3 grower is China... but they have such a need... that area net importer of Corn from the west.

    July 25, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  12. G Tritt

    I for one would like to thank farmers THROUGHOUT the USA for sticking to farming in the bad years. You ppl need to realize that if the govt does not help keep them afloat when disaster hits, we will all suffer from food shortages and astronomical food prices. A drought for a farmer is no different than an earthquake or a Katrina in other regions. We need these ppl!. And NO, I am not a farmer, not the child of a farmer–but I do like to eat and I do like to have ethanol to cut gas prices and for all the thousands of other ways corn and other agri-products are used.
    I hope we do not get to the place that there are only corporations growing our food–they can stay afloat, but farm families have a harder time of it. So thanks to all the men, women, AND children who keep at it. I for one salute you–and I will be doing a Rain Dance in my heart for you!!

    July 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • supersam007

      I have no problem lending hands from government/my tax in catrastrophic year like this one but I disagree subsidizing the farmers and corporate farms on regular basis.

      July 25, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
  13. hmmmm

    July 25, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  14. Not a farmer but live among them

    I can't even begin to comment on how ill informed the comments are from Edwina Malus and just wondering. You make it sound like the feds are going to step in, wave a magic wand and make all of the losses associated with this year's drought disappear for farmers. Yes, many have crop insurance but the entire cost isn't covered by any entity. Farmers have to pay a portion of premiums based on farm size and projected yield. And it's not cheap. A startup could easily be driven right out of business between crop insurance premiums and other overhead costs. Any profits are funneled back into the private insurance companies that underwrite the policies at the taxpayers AND the farmers expense. And do we really want the people who supply us with food to be at the complete and total mercy of mother nature? If you think food costs a lot now, the alternative would be much much worse.

    Do your homework before you comment.

    July 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  15. Edwina Malus

    Most farmers have crop insurance (referred to facetiously as Obamacare for crops on the Colbert Report ha ha) so they aren't going to be hurting. The rest of the country will, however. Food prices will rise precipitously as feed prices rise for those who raise cattle, hogs, chicken but the Feds are offering low interest loans to compensate. Too bad the rest of us have no such protections.

    July 25, 2012 at 9:00 am |
    • just wondering

      Yes and taxpayers fund the greater percentage of crop insurance premiums via tax revenues provided to the USDA, so the bigger the losses, the bigger the payout and the more we'll get dinged. Not the fault of the farmers of course, but where are the protestors railing about this "socialist" program?

      July 25, 2012 at 9:21 am |
    • Commonsense

      UDSA, more aptly the FSA (Farm Service Agency) doesn't offer crop insurance. There are occasionally drought assistance programs, but most of those are offered through individual state agencies and not FSA. The only thing that FSA has implemented is allowing producers to cut or feed Conservation Reserve Progam acres to make up for loss in hay. That program, called ECP if you want to read about it, actually saves taxpayers money as it drops the annual CRP payment by 10%. Crop insurance is all privately run. While I prefer many things to be ran privately, compared to when the ASCS (the agency that became the FSA) did sell crop insurance, the cost was far less for the farmer and the chance of actually seeing a return in the event of a distaster was higher. Many crop insurance companies are little more than shysters selling farmers a policy so filled with double talk that there's little chance of seeing any relief. So, no, crop insurance isn't a government program, and no doesn't mean that the farmer will be alright.

      July 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm |
    • Not a farmer but live among them

      July 25, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
    • we all have protections

      Edwina, do you have Medicare yet? Yes, you do have quite a few protections, just as other people do. I hope, after your comment, you aren't one of the grasshoppers who defaulted on your mortgage and were offered some form of bailout.

      July 26, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
      • Edwina Malus

        @we all have protections, no and no. And what do your inquiries have to do with this discussion. You going to inflate my wages or give me a subsidy to cover my rising grocery costs to feed my family? I didn't think so.

        July 28, 2012 at 8:44 am |
  16. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    Hehe. If you plant it, it might not come.

    July 24, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  17. Thinking things through

    I have my fingers crossed for good healing and satisfying rains. That being said, there will indeed be some places that will still not get enough to salvage certain crops. The hope of our heartland is RAIN.

    July 24, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Lora

      My family farms in southern Illinois. I do not know about everywhere else, but we could get steady rain from now until September and the corn would still be a complete loss.

      July 25, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
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