All dried out
HUNTLEY – Perhaps “bone dry by the Fourth of July” is the better slogan when it comes to corn production this year.
Though front lawn perfectionists and puddle jumpers surely loathe the lack of rain, farmers have it worse. This season’s drought has wreaked havoc on field corn production.
It wasn’t always this way, though. March temperatures in the mid ’70s had Illinois farmers anticipating a banner year for corn production.
That optimism shriveled along with the stalks as a summer heat wave scorched the Midwest. Huntley saw temperatures in the high ’90s and above from late June through the first week of July.
The heat teamed up with its partner in crime, drought.
The first half of 2012 marked the sixth driest January-June period in Illinois record, according to the Illinois State Water Survey.
Though farmers in Central and Southern Illinois have seen worse conditions this summer, local farmers in and around Huntley have also seen their fields victimized by the weather.
“There are a lot of field corn fields that will not produce anything this year right now. We could get an inch of rain every other day and those fields would still not produce anything because the plant has already determined how many ears [it will have] or if it’s going to put an ear on,” Gary Pack, one of three partners in Twin Garden Farms in Harvard, said.
For farmers like Pack, the weather has made adaptation a necessity, requiring him to move workers from different positions to do irrigation work fulltime and calling for a “tremendous amount of work and expense.”
“It adds another full level of management and fulltime jobs without any extra people,” he said.
The average yield of field corn at Twin Garden Farms is 180 to 200 bushels per acre. Pack anticipates harvesting about 140 bushels per acre this year.
Pack noted that subtle differences in everything from irrigation techniques to soil quality can make a difference from farm to farm.
“You can have fields right across the street from each other, one’s going to be extremely bad and one’s going to be salvageable. It’s hard to explain; there are so many variables in each situation,” he said.
Fruin Brothers Farm in Huntley is suffering even greater deficits than Twin Garden Farms. Their average yield is about 150 bushels per acre, but Dan Fruin, who owns and operates the farm with his brother, Ross, said he would be surprised if the non-irrigated sections of field corn yield 40 bushels per acre this year.
“If it does not rain in the next 10 days, it’ll be closer to zero,” Fruin said.
Soybeans are another major crop in Illinois, and at Fruin’s farm, they are struggling as well.
“[Our] soybeans are kind of hanging in there… They’re looking better than I thought or that you’d think they would,” Fruin said.
Pack called this year’s drought worse than the infamous one in 1988. That year, drought conditions led to higher prices for feed and lower quality livestock, according to an essay published by the University of Illinois.
Pack said this year’s is worse because it started sooner. The mild, dry winter of 2012 was the third warmest in Illinois history. Those conditions, Pack said, failed to cause deep soil freezing that kills insects that threaten crops in the spring.
Fruin reported that spider mites, which thrive in hot and dry conditions, are very present pests in the farm’s soybean fields this year.
Most of what Fruin and Pack produce is sold as a commodity. Field corn is used in various food products, from corn oil and syrup to cereal and beef from corn-fed cows.
Though the ripples of the drought have not been felt in grocery aisles yet, a report by ABC news says it is only a matter of time before the raised prices on some commodities will translate into higher prices for consumers.
Though speculation on higher food prices varies, some, like a CBS report, paint a grim picture. The report quotes Purdue University agriculture economists speculating the cost of beef to rise by as much as 10 percent and for meat prices to remain heightened until at least 2014.
Such an impact would send a painful aftershock of the drought to consumers. Pack will not know the true impact of the drought until harvest time. Until then, he will watch the skies, hoping for rain.
“Nobody’s promised all good times, and we go through struggles and we get through it,” he said.