KOSCIUSKO COUNTY, Ind.-The corn stalks in north central Indiana stand thin and pale, like rows of prison camp inmates. They're short-about chest height, when they should be 7 or 8 feet tall this time of year. Their leaves are curled and limp to the touch, sometimes browned near the tips. They ought to be stiff, sharp, and deep green.
The problem is there's no water here. At least not enough to replenish the sandy gray soil. Though scattered clouds flung raindrops here and there on a mid-July day, they were just teasing.
"We've had little showers come through," said Matt Roberts, who runs a fourth-generation family farm in Syracuse. "It's all been less than an inch." As of midsummer, the largest downpour Roberts had seen since the growing season began was seven-tenths of an inch, in June.
"It dried up the next day. You couldn't even tell it rained."
Rain has been in short supply at many farms this summer. It's steered around entire states as mountains and plains stretching from California to Michigan have experienced severe drought. Prolonged hot weather is shriveling crops, fueling wildfires, and sapping rivers and water reservoirs. Kosciusko County, Ind., is one of nearly 1,300 counties in 29 states that the U.S. Department of Agriculture listed as natural disaster zones this summer-the largest disaster declaration in the agency's 150-year history.
Federal meteorologists say the drought is the most widespread the United States has endured since 1956. As corn and soybeans wilted under the sun, market prices for the two crops spiked, threatening to shoot up food prices in local grocery stores and foreign markets. In the meantime, farming communities in Indiana and elsewhere will have to cope with unforeseen losses.
"I know that the good Lord is going to take care of us," said Roberts, 30, who has been praying for rain at the dinner table with his wife and 3-month-old son. Roberts expects to lose an entire cornfield this year for the first time in his life. He farms about 250 acres apiece of corn and soybeans and has never used artificial irrigation, since rains and thick soil have, in the past, been sufficient to quench his crops.
Now, corn stalks are scraggly and bean plants are knee-high instead of waist-high. It's been so hot here-triple digits some days-there's often no morning dew. In some cases, ears of corn have grown only as thick as a thumb, with tiny kernels. Sections of Roberts' cornfields have no ears at all, because pollen from the corn tassels never fertilized the dehydrated plants.
Roberts said that if decent rains arrive before the end of August, he may get a fair, though drastically reduced, soybean harvest. In mid-July the plants were struggling to put out flowers, which are necessary to produce beans.
It's probably too late to improve corn yields, though. Farmers in Kosciusko County can harvest 150 bushels of corn per acre in a good year, but this fall they may get 60 or less. In the hardest-hit fields, they'll simply have to fire up a tractor and level the corn with a Bush Hog-or sell it as silage, cheap cattle fodder. Otherwise, Roberts said, "You're going to be wasting time and fuel trying to harvest corn that doesn't have any ears on it."
In communities built on agriculture, a bad year for farmers is bad news for everyone. "If they don't make any money this year, they won't spend it next year," said Matt Gilsinger, the store manager at Gilsinger's, a John Deere dealership in Plymouth. He expects the biggest impact on farm equipment sales to come in 2013, as farmers recoup losses. Meanwhile, Gilsinger isn't selling many lawnmowers: "Personally, I haven't mowed my backyard in nine weeks. The grass is just dead."
Many know that the ultimate solution to the drought is divine relief. Southwest of Syracuse in Burket, a farming town with just 106 Post Office addresses, about 60 people met at Burket United Methodist Church on the last Thursday evening in June. The pastor, Gary Loy, had invited two area churches to join his congregation in a special drought prayer service.
Attendees sang hymns and individually knelt near the front of the church to ask God for rain. Loy had brought a green-and-white umbrella, and held it up in front of his congregants, many of whom raised umbrellas of their own. "To me that's a symbol of faith," Loy told me later. "You have to believe. You have to have expectations."
Within an hour of the prayer rally's conclusion, sprinkles fell on Burket. The next day, a downpour arrived: Loy "worshiped and rejoiced" on his screened porch as he watched a powerful storm front sweep through Kosciusko County. He didn't mind that it knocked out his power: "The rain created an encouragement that God is in control."
But after cutting off lights and releasing a half inch of rain on the brown lawns of nearby Warsaw, dark clouds, lightning, and strong winds rolled eastward. The storm front, a rare weather event called a "super derecho," sped with hurricane-force winds from northern Indiana to the District of Columbia in 10 hours, uprooting trees and blowing down semis with 90 mph gusts. The storm left at least 26 people dead and millions without electricity.
The derecho wasn't enough to halt the deepening drought, though, and neither were other sporadic showers that flitted across the Midwest during the first half of summer. By the beginning of July more than half the continental United States was in a moderate to extreme drought, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. On July 22 the USDA said only a quarter of U.S. corn and a third of soybeans were in "good" or better condition.
Sporadic rains also aren't enough to replenish shrinking rivers in Nebraska, a top corn and soybean state where half of cropland relies on artificial irrigation from wells and waterways. By mid-July the state's Department of Natural Resources had ordered 1,106 farmers to stop irrigating their crops because the rivers they drew from are dwindling in volume. State officials in Kansas gave out similar orders regarding 10 streams there. Some farmers, anticipating the restrictions, gave their crops an extra dousing before the orders arrived.
In several Midwest states, soaring temperatures turned a seemingly benign source into a Zippo: Farmers blamed barn fires in Iowa and Missouri on hay bales that had ignited by spontaneous combustion, a phenomenon that can occur when moist hay becomes overheated.
Concern about wildfires motivated all but three counties in Indiana to ban open burning this year, and the commissioners of Johnson County barred anyone from bringing cigarettes to the county fair. Many Indiana counties also prohibited residents from lighting Fourth of July fireworks. Although Indianapolis officials put on a firework display during a week of triple-digit temperatures, residents caught lighting personal fireworks faced fines of up to $2,500.
Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard declared an additional ban on watering lawns, hand washing vehicles, and filling swimming pools while the drought persisted. Morse Reservoir, a major source of the city's water, was 6 feet below normal by midsummer and dropping 1 foot every five days. As the water disappeared and the lake bottom emerged, pontoon boats near the shore became stranded on dried, cracked mud. With just one-tenth of an inch of rain between June 1 and July 16, Indianapolis endured its driest stretch in 104 years.
As the drought progressed, government predictions of the fall corn harvest fell sharply from what was supposed to be a bumper year. Farmers had planted more corn this year than anytime since 1937: a total of 96 million acres. With corn futures selling at a handsome $6 or more per bushel last year on the Chicago Board of Trade, farmers sowed more than usual in hopes of meeting demand and cashing in.
Instead, their corn drooped and prices spiked. As the USDA slashed its forecast for the year's per-acre corn harvest, corn prices shot up nearly 50 percent in six weeks, reaching $8.25 per bushel on July 20, an all-time high. Soybeans set their own record of $17.58 per bushel the same day.
The record prices will help smooth out losses for some farmers: If they lose only a portion of their crops to the drought, they'll be able to sell the rest at the higher price. And most, like Roberts, have taxpayer-subsidized insurance to cover crop loss. The USDA also made low-interest emergency loans available to farmers and ranchers living in the driest areas.
This year, one farmer's dry spell will be another farmer's windfall: In Minnesota, where the effects of the drought are less severe, corn is faring better than in any other state. Farmers there stand to make good profits when they bring their crops to market.
But high corn prices have a trickle-down effect on other industries and food products. Field corn, besides being an ingredient in three-quarters of supermarket products in forms like corn syrup, is also a major feed source for cattle, hogs, and chickens.
As they watch the cost of feed rise, farmers are selling off livestock in order to collect profits while they can. Pork producers in Indiana have flooded the market with so many pigs that, in some cases, processing centers are backed up.
Corinne Alexander, an agricultural economist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., said that livestock sell-offs will translate to cheaper meat in the supermarket in the short-term-but in three to six months the prices of pork, beef, chicken, eggs, and milk will edge upward as livestock owners adjust to higher priced feed.
Products made from soybeans, like vegetable oil, margarine, salad dressing, and even doughnuts (fried in the oil) are likely to increase slightly in cost by the end of the year and into 2013. That follows a year of above-average food inflation in 2011, when grocery store prices ticked up nearly 5 percent.
With the 2012 harvest not yet gathered and counted, it's too early to tell how high the drought may drive corn and soybean prices, Alexander said. One thing is for sure: The record prices will ripple around the globe. "The U.S. is the world's largest exporter of corn," said Alexander. "If we have a bad corn crop ... that has a big impact on other countries."
Expensive corn and soybeans played a role in the food crisis of 2007 and 2008, when hungry citizens rioted in Haiti, Bangladesh, and several African nations. Anger over expensive food also contributed to the launch of "Arab Spring" revolutions.
Back in Syracuse, Ind., Roberts' concerns got some relief on July 19, when a 2.5-inch downpour-the largest all season-answered his prayers for rain. He was happy to see the rain fall, but regretted it hadn't come in June.
"This really isn't enough to cure the problem. It's a really good Band-Aid for now, though."