Drought brings back memories of 1988 crop losses
June 28, 2012 3:25 PM
Just one year ago Jeff Scates saw the worst flooding on his southern Illinois farmland since 1937. Today, Scates is watching his corn fields shrivel from the driest season in 24 years.
"We've gone from one extreme to the other, from being flooded on three-quarters of the farm now to a drought," said Scates, 42, who with his family members farms 15,000 acres of corn, soybeans and other crops along the Kentucky-Indiana border where the Ohio and Wabash Rivers meet.
Scates said his corn is still in better shape than many fields of his neighbors, who farm sandier soils that do not retain moisture. Moisture is needed to develop a strong root system to sustain plants in the hottest months of July and August.
He says this growing season is reminiscent of the summer of 1988, when the central Corn Belt had significant crop losses. Field conditions were hot and dry early this spring, similar to what happened 24 years ago when local crops, especially corn, were disseminated by lack of summer rains.
"Clearly it's one of these nasty droughts. If it doesn't surpass 1988, it certainly is going to rival it or be among the so-called great droughts we've had in the past 30 years," said Bob Nielsen, extension agronomist at Purdue University, who recalled his time as a crop advisor in 1988 to Indiana farmers.
U.S. corn prices have soared 17 percent this month as day after day of hot dry weather persists in the heart of the Midwest, where Iowa and Illinois alone produce one-third of all U.S. corn and soybeans.
The markets are "on fire" as concerns mount that the United States, the world's top exporter of these two food and feed crops, will be hit with crop losses. That would hit not only the U.S. government budget and insurance companies with crop insurance payments but also spur a fresh round of world food price inflation, experts say.
Concerns right now are zeroed in on corn, which is planted before soybeans and is just entering its key growth stage of pollination -- the period when the corn plant starts producing the grain kernels. In the Midwest, the pollination will be under way for the next four weeks. There is a direct correlation between pollination and final yields, with the success of pollination determined by the level of moisture and amount of heat the corn plant receives.
USDA on Monday rated 56 percent of the U.S. corn crop as good/excellent, the lowest rating in that category in late June since 1988. That year, U.S. farmers produced only 4.9 billion bushels of corn, a full 33 percent below the government's initial May estimate of 7.3 billion bushels. Currently, USDA is forecasting a record U.S. corn crop of 14.8 billion bushels for 2012. That estimate came on June 12, before the latest drought pressures.