Cover Story

Our parched land

"Our parched land" Continued...

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

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.

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