About two weeks ago we learned USDA Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse was going to be touring the Midwest surveying the effect of drought and extreme heat across the Corn Belt. Our farm ended up as a stop on the tour because my sister, who recently starting working at our local FSA office, suggested we might be willing to host part of the tour. We agreed to play host, and plans were made.
Mr. Scuse was scheduled to visit us on the afternoon of Wednesday July 19. We were told some local media may be on hand for the event. Well that all turned into a much bigger deal early Tuesday afternoon. I received a phone call from USDA so they could give me a phone number to call up CNN down in Atlanta because they wanted to come out and cover the drought themselves and report on Scuse’s visit. And oh by the way, there will be more local and regional media present and possibly some media from the UK and Finland.
No problem. Sounded kind of fun in fact. CNN wanted to begin setting up at 4:45am and begin shooting live at 6:30. So after a few phone calls to Atlanta I was able to get them directions to a random corn field, in the dark, in a place they hadn’t been to before.
We arrived at the field and met with Rob Marciano and the members of the CNN crew. I’ve got to say that working with Rob and the crew was a very pleasant experience. They showed a genuine concern for the drought conditions and were eager to learn about the weather’s effect on a corn crop. Much of what he mentions about corn in the video link posted above he quickly learned from us, and I thought he did a great job explaining the crop conditions. Rob was on CNN for short segments throughout the day, and ironically a small storm cell passed right over them and dumped .3″ of rain in about 20 minutes. He also interviewed a neighboring farmer who works closely with FSA and FSA District Director Doug Hovermale.
By the time Under Secretary Scuse arrived quite a few local farmers were on hand to hear him speak. Local, regional, national (CNN), and even international members of the media were on hand to document his talk.
What did Scuse have to say after viewing drought stricken fields in Ohio and Indiana? Not surprisingly he thought things looked pretty bad. His main point was that Congress needs to the get new Farm Bill passed. The current bill passed in 2008 expires at the end of the year, and some of the programs in place for an event such as this nationwide drought are currently unfunded. I think everyone agrees the Farm Bill needs reforms, but things in Washington are grinding to a halt as the election approaches.
After that I was caught slightly off guard when I was asked to come up and speak about our farm and the drought in front of all the people and cameras. I thought I did pretty well since I had been talking about the subject all day anyway.
This is my current stance on the drought and our operation as it relates to corn. We’ve been out scouting corn fields pulling and counting ears of corn. We think our better fields could yield somewhere around 120 bushels per acre which is 40-50 bushels short of our whole farm over the last five years. There are a couple of issues with that estimate though. We are finding really nice fully pollinated ears in most areas of most fields, but we can also find small or partially pollinated ears right next to those full ears. The variability of ear size and kernel count makes it hard to get a handle on what is really out there. Also we are counting the number of ears per acre. We are finding that because of the hot, dry weather corn fields planted at 32,000 plants per acre have only produced 20,000-25,000 ears. So even if all the ears out here were really nice, up to a third of the crop may already be gone.
The other issue is the weather. Because our corn has already passed the pollination stage, getting caught up on rain now will not help us get a better crop at harvest. The only thing precipitation and cooler temperatures can do now is maintain what’s in the field right now until it matures. Although it’s hard to know if our estimates are entirely accurate, we do know we have a well below average corn crop. Between now and harvest the crop can only maintain itself or get worse.
Dad had a great quote in the Journal & Courier which is our local newspaper.
“It’s hard emotionally. Farmers work to be successful at all levels. We work to raise a good product. We have to get over that, manage our losses and go on.”
And that’s the truth. No one pulls the planter out of the shed in the spring hoping to file a crop insurance claim or ask for disaster assistance. In fact this spring hopes were extra high. Planting was nearly a month early, setting the stage for a nice long growing season for healthy crops. The early start was the result of above average temperatures and dry weather. Unfortunately that pattern never changed for much of the country. It only got hotter and drier as time went on. And although we received 2″ of rain overnight (maybe the most in one shot all year?) we have still received less than half of the rain we normally get.
We want to be good at our jobs just like anyone else. It’s just tough to continually go out everyday and watch your potential crop decline wondering when it will stop.
One more thing that’ll I say as of this posting. Things are our farm are not good, but we have it a lot better than some other farmers. I’ve seen pictures from other farmers in places like Southern Illinois where they are mowing down corn fields. Some fields intended for grain production are being turned into silage, and many say it’s poor quality silage. Parts of farms in conservation programs may be released to allow farmers to cut the grass for hay after the nesting period has passed. So even though we have it tough right now we’ll back to do it all again next year, and we know it could be a lot worse.