Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Drought

Corn in Atlanta, Illinois 8/7/12
This week a couple of Farm staff attended a meeting in Springfield, Illinois. On the drive there I did what most farmers do, I checked out the crops along side the road. In Cook County we have all seen the effects of the drought. Wither it be the dry yards and green spaces or the extra dust that comes from a summer without rain. In farm country a summer with challenging weather is potentially disastrous. This year it has been the lack of rain. When we passed Atlanta, Illinois the signs of the summer heat were easy to see. The corn was passed what is called "fired stage" and had actually died a month and a half early. Corn is an amazing plant. It can send tap roots 6-8 feet down to find moisture. To stabilize against wind damage the brace roots keep it upright. When it is really hot the leaves actually roll up to conserve moisture and to cut down on the amount of surface area the sun light hits. Still, with July the second warmest month on record and rain fall desperately low the corn plants have had a very hard year.
The last drought like this that most farmers remember was in 1988. It was one of the most crop damaging in modern US history. That summer Illinois got 14.6 inches of rain through the first seven moths of the year, which is only half-inch less that this year. The reason that agricultural forecasters aren't talking about a total crop failure that mirrors 1988 is because the seed that farmers use today is not the same as was planted in '88. If it were, farmers would be finding themselves facing another wipe out year. The seeds used today are different in that they have the ability to be mildly, drought resistant. Crop scientists have found that certain strains of corn plant have held up better than others to drier conditions. When cross hybridizing is done the characteristics are passed to the next generation that is used as seed by the farmers. This is the oversimplified version but that is basically how we now have a corn seed that is different than what was used by farmers in 1988.
For Midwestern farmers 1988 was one of those years that stands out so much that it is regularly referenced.  Much like you might say to someone "where were you in 2001?" In 1988 I was just starting high school back Clarinda, Iowa.  Like most farm families rain, or the lack of it was a huge topic of conversation.  Signs in town said "Pray for rain".  There were towns that were so desperate they paid airplanes to "seed" the clouds.  To this day I don't know what it was they dropped from the planes but it didn't work.  As cloud banks would build to the West and our hopes would grow they would soon pass and still no rain.  Besides the death march of the corn and beans we also watched hay fields that should yield 3 or 4 cuttings through the summer barely give us one.  No hay meant we would not be able to feed the cattle herds we owned.  As the end of July came we still had barely had any rain.  To outsiders, I know it must seem like farmers are never happy with the weather.  Farmers complain when there is too much rain and are just as loud when there isn't enough.  The thing is, there is just so much on the line and talking about it is all there is left to do.  As we got ready for the 1988 Page County Fair it finally really rained.  I remember it because we actually went outside and stood in the rain.  Something so common, yet it seemed like a miracle that day.  The rain helped that July but it was one of the worse harvests our farm had had in generations. Seeing those fields in Atlanta, Illinois brought back memories of 1988.  The final chapter in the 2012 harvest has yet to be written but with a little luck and some better seeds farmers will hopefully come out with something in the grain bin.

Corn at Wagner Farm 8/8/12