Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns this week declared nearly all of Illinois' 102 parched counties as primary farm disaster areas. The declaration qualifies farmers for government assistance, including low-interest loans to help recover from crop losses.
Illinois this year is a classic example of the fickle nature of drought. From Aurora to Wheeling, many areas of the state have received less than half the normal rainfall since April 1st. But other areas of Illinois, especially downstate, have fared better.
Farmers are noticing widespread differences in yield potential in fields located just a mile apart. On a trek through northern Illinois late this week, our own Laurel Bower Burgmaier found some of the same evidence.
Paul Young, Illinois farmer: "We're looking at no rain and high temperatures this weekend. Crops are running out of gas."
Paul Young farms 3,000 acres in northwest Illinois. At the end of July, he stands considerably taller than the cornstalks in one of his fields. This image sums up what most farmers in Young's area have been facing all summer --extreme heat and little to no rainfall. Precipitation across the state has been 4 to 10 inches below normal since March, just half of the average.
Paul Young, Illinois farmer: "Going that long in a major drought, it's hard to come back. If we don't get more rain in the weeks to come, we'll be in the insurance range."
Elwynn Taylor, Climatologist: "It's been a while since we've had a serious drought, going back to 1988. Before that, we had a serious drought in 1983. Previous to that, we go back quite a few years...But, how many years will people go between droughts? It looks like we have usually twelve years with a moderate drought, followed by six years with two serious droughts and that is the way the Corn Belt has been for 800 years. This year may be the first year that we would be in a high risk in six years. "
Elwynn Taylor, a climatologist at Iowa State University Extension, says the drought is localized and not widespread through the Corn Belt. And while Illinois has received some rain in the past few weeks, thanks largely to the remains of Hurricane Dennis, there's a strong difference in precipitation between northern and southern parts of the state. Much of southern Illinois has enjoyed above-normal rainfall, while far northern Illinois is dismally dry.
Paul Young, Illinois farmer: "A guy will pick the end rows and see what there is. In the high spots, I might take a few passes, but if it costs $200,000 for a combine, can't go through a field for 10 to 20 bushel corn. It's going to be more expensive anyway with fuel costs. It's going to be a tough year for a lot of guys, including me."
Experts are saying that even if rainfall in August is near normal, recovering from current conditions will be difficult. June and July are the months when crop demand for soil moisture peaks. It's also a time when corn moves through pollination and soybeans start flowering --key stages of development for both crops. Cooler temperatures recently moved through the Midwest, bringing some relief to parched regions of Illinois. But, Taylor says this is short-lived with temperatures forecast to go up again.
Elwynn Taylor, Climatologist: " Should the warm temperatures continue another two or three weeks, it wouldn't matter how much moisture the crop received, it will reduce the yields below what they would have been even in the areas that have plenty of moisture."
David Feltes is an Extension Educator who covers 13 counties in Northwest Illinois. He says variability describes the soil in the region he covers. In some sections, there is good, deep soil. But in other areas, the light and sandy soil is drought-prone.
David Feltes, Extension Educator: "The biggest issue is the soil's moisture-holding ability. That's the bank account we draw on in droughts. We've got better capacity in better soil."
Crop rotation also is playing a key role in how the Illinois farmers' corn and soybeans are coping with the harsh weather conditions.
Bob Slaymaker, Illinois farmer: "Looking at best soil types and crop rotation has been significant. Corn following soybeans is doing better. Some stocks I pulled that are in second year corn had a hard time setting. In a field next to it that was corn on soybeans, it was better. They actually put on ears. Soil type and crop rotation will determine what kind of yields we'll get in a drought."
Greg Clark, Extension Educator: "Producers need to check it out. A person can drive by all they want, but once they walk in 30 to 40 feet, it's a whole different ballgame in there."
Hot, dry conditions are stretching in a band that runs from Wisconsin, over to parts of Michigan, all the way down to southern Texas. But, Illinois has been hit the hardest in the Midwest with the most severe drought reaching into southeastern Iowa too. USDA reports that 93 percent of Illinois' farmland is short of topsoil moisture. Corn conditions are rated 56 percent poor to very poor and soybeans are estimated to be 33 percent poor to very poor. With these kinds of figures, many of the state's farmers are left wondering what to do when harvest time comes.
Bob Slaymaker, Illinois farmer: "Years ago, when we had livestock, a guy could use that for silage. But, there's not much livestock around here anymore. Options for using what remains of a bad crop are low. Some farmers will just abandon the crop and prepare for next year."
Farmers like Slaymaker and Young face the reality that some of their corn and soybeans will be zeroed out through federal crop insurance. And while both know they won't be producing yields anywhere near last year's bumper crop, they say at this point, no one is sure of the drought's impact.
For Market to Market, I'm Laurel Bower Burgmaier.