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Dan Laack (Photo by Dave Bell for WORLD)

Chain reaction

Weather | The effects of this summer's drought will have a ripple effect throughout the Midwest

VANDALIA, Ill.-After watching his once-promising corn crop wither away during the blast-furnace heat wave that gripped the Midwest during June and July, Dan Laack recently fired up his John Deere combine and headed to his fields in south-central Illinois.

The early planted corn was mature, and he was anxious to see if the actual yields were as bad as the experts had predicted. They were. And worse.

In some fields, the combine's yield monitor barely bumped up from zero. In others, he was getting a mere 15 or 20 bushels per acre. So far, he's had a high of 70 bushels from some of his better ground, which is less than half of what he'd expect under normal conditions.

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"It's as bad or worse than I thought it would be," Laack said.

Because of this summer's devastating drought in America's heartland, even people without rural route addresses are interested in the outcome of the harvest.

In fact, it's safe to say that all businesses and residents of Vandalia, a community of 7,000, located 60 miles east of St. Louis, will feel the effects of the hottest and driest summer in decades.

For instance, John Britt, who owns Bluff Equipment in nearby Bluff City, predicts that the ripples from this summer's drought will be significant and widespread.

"There will be a chain reaction," Britt said. "There will be a lot of people hurt, some worse than the farmers. In every little town, the merchants will feel the effects."

In his business, Britt said, the sale of mowers, choppers, and grain wagons has slowed as the prospects for a normal harvest have dimmed. But farmers are continuing with their orders for the big-ticket items, such as tractors and combines.

Ernie Chappel, president of First National Bank in Vandalia, agrees that the drought's economic fallout will be severe.

"The trickle-down effects will be extensive," he said. "Agriculture is the main economic driver in this community, so the compounding effect of the drought will be felt for a while. Crop insurance helps the farmers, but other businesses are not helped."

At Cripe Grain in Bluff City, Ken Cripe is trying to stay positive, but he knows that difficult times lie ahead.

"I don't want to be doom and gloom, but I've seen this before," he said. "In 1983, we had the same problem, with little or no corn harvested. It took several years to make it up.

"Car dealers, implement dealers, even Wal-Mart will feel the impact," Cripe continued. "We've had 29 decent years since the last major drought, and if one kicks you, you get up and keep going."

Now in his 58th year in the fertilizer business, Herb Woolsey has seen it all. Good years and bad years, including floods and droughts. And he knows the tough road that lies ahead for farmers-and farm-related businesses-in the wake of this year's drought.

"There's not much good news out there right now," said Woolsey, who is president of Woolsey Brothers Farm Supply. "Our business goes back to 1954, so I've been through a few of these. This will impact the entire area negatively. But I have a habit of looking for the bright side of things, even when there's not a lot of bright there."

Though it's too early for the full impact of the drought to be felt at Arthur Young Chevrolet in Vandalia, vice president and general manager Dennis Young said that his service work has increased.

"People are fixing up what they have," he said. "We'll see in the fall how things go. Normally, the farmers don't do their spending until harvest is done."

A recent field survey by the local Farm Bureau predicted an average yield of 41 bushels per acre for corn (less than a third of the norm of 150) and 21 bushels per acre for soybeans (down from 32 last year).

Already, some area farmers have mowed down their corn or chopped it for silage to be fed to cattle. There simply aren't enough ears on the stalks to make it worth the cost of running the combine through the fields.

For Laack, a part-time Methodist minister, the dismal numbers on his combine's yield monitor have confirmed his fears. But they haven't shaken his faith.

"Jesus told the parable about the man who built his house on the sand and another man who build his house on a rock," Laack said. "Christ is my rock. The farm is not my rock. That keeps my foundation from shifting, even during the worst farming year I've ever seen."

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