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Our parched land

Farmers contemplate mowing cornfields, water reservoirs are sinking, and crop prices are skyrocketing as the United States swelters through its worst drought in a half-century

Issue: "Praying for rain," Aug. 11, 2012

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.

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"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."

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