Farmers in this hardscrabble patch of the Midwest know the discomfort of summer heat, they’ve suffered through dry weather before and they’ve certainly lived through the boom and bust cycles of modern farming. But they’ve never season a drought like the one that’s gripping much of the nation, and they’re seeing miserable growing conditions rivaled only perhaps by the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.
The images of drought have played across TV screens and on Internet portals for weeks on end. These images, however, don’t match the experience of seeing the effects of the summer of 2012 up close.
The soil is cracked like weather-parched lips all across this once-verdant farmland, roughly a 90-minute drive due west of St. Louis or about two hours east of Kansas City. So dry and weak are the cornstalks out here that a gathering wind knocks over entire fields.
“We’re cutting it down just so we don’t have to look at it,” said Carl, 67, a lifelong farmer in the New Florence area.
A prideful man who doesn’t want his surname used, given his struggles this year with Mother Nature, Carl gingerly came off his tractor with the help of a cane and sat on one of its steps. He works the farm with his 36-year-old son, Scott. The family dog, Rover, scampered around and Carl’s mother watched from a distance.
“In her 92 years, she said, she’s never seen anything like it,” Carl said, shaking his head while recounting the hard times befalling local farmers.
Over the past six weeks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated 1,821 counties in 35 states as disaster areas, at least 1,692 of them due to drought. The agency is calling it the worst drought in more than 50 years. The USDA has designated almost the entire state of Missouri as under extreme drought conditions or exceptional, the worst designation.
The outlook wasn’t much better when McClatchy visited farms in Madison, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. There, corn crops were greener than in New Florence, but the earth was similarly cracked and crops are clearly stunted near the banks of the river, where water levels have fallen dramatically.
At the local cooperative in New Florence, where farmers all own shares of the company, Randy Rodgers is worried. It’s not that things are a bit worse; they’re off the charts.
“Production here is going to be off 75 to 80 percent. That’s a big drop-off,” he said.
Put another way, for every dollar of production, at least 75 cents is lost. These are the kind of losses that cripple a farm. All around the area, “For Sale” signs dot the roadsides as farmers try to sell land that, at least this year, isn’t generating profit and income.
Adding to the kick in the teeth farmers are taking, many had been lulled into a false sense of security by the drought-resistant genetically modified seeds they’ve been planting.
“We’d come to believe that we were kind of protected against the weather. But clearly Mother Nature is still queen,” said Rodgers, who farmed for more than two decades before turning to running the cooperative, where farmers buy their seed, fertilizer and other necessities.
Rodgers doesn’t bemoan the dry weather’s effect on the drought-resistant crops.
“It’s kind of amazing it held on as long as it did. . . . We kind of kept hoping that if we hold on and get a little rain,” he said, his voice trailing off.
The cooperative already had sold most of what was needed for this year’s planting, so the effects of the unforgettable drought of 2012 will be felt next year, in the reduced purchasing power of local farmers.
For growers who produce single crops, such as corn or soybeans, crop insurance is likely to ease the sting for many, said Ray Massey, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s agriculture extension program. For much of the last decade, at least 7 million acres of Missouri crops were insured.
“The problem with Missouri is that very few people are just crop producers. In Missouri almost everyone (on the farm) has cattle, and they’ve run out of food for their cattle,” Massey said, predicting that the early slaughter of livestock will bring lasting problems. “That’s going to be the long-term impact. The number of cattle is going to decrease significantly. . . . It’s going to take years to recover from this.”
The agency on Wednesday relaxed grazing rules set forth in crop insurance programs, in an effort to ease the drought’s burden on livestock producers. It also modified its emergency loan programs, so that farmers and livestock producers can seek low-interest loans before the end of growing seasons.
There are other problems from this year’s devastating drought, perhaps less obvious. Not only does the New Florence area supply ethanol producers and corn mills, but a lot of the area’s product also is exported around the world.
The United States has been the top supplier of corn globally, but Rodgers, the cooperative leader, fears that the drought creates an opportunity for competitors.
“One of my real concerns is that by having such a shortage of corn that we’re going to lose a lot of market share down the road,” he said, pointing to new supply relationships being forged abroad as a result of the U.S. drought.