It's the drought, not farmers pushing up food prices


I had a chance to visit a couple of farms in Nebraska and Iowa recently and got a real close up and personal look at what impact this year’s drought is having on America’s Heartland.

 I wanted to see for myself whether all the meteorological horror stories I’d read about and seen on network news stories were accurate. I think these accounts are not accurate, the real situation is much worse.

As with the hurricanes and tornadoes we face in the Southeast, Mother Nature seems to be similarly fickle with her heat and drought wrath.

Jim Ruggles, who farms with his brother Jeff and his father Rick near McCook, Neb., says the heat and drought has devastated his dryland corn and soybean crops, yet their wheat yield was an on-farm record. Perhaps wheat will be the Midwest’s grain superstar this year.

Standing on a bluff, and facing west on the Ruggles farm, I could see two or three farms and several hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of dead corn. This corn was not damaged, it was dead — zeroed out as Jim Ruggles described it.

Facing east there were several back to back irrigation pivots under which were growing what looked to be pretty good corn and soybeans. The corn won’t be good, several growers say, despite the irrigation water. The soybeans still had a chance and the area did get rain in early August.

Flying over a good part of Iowa, it was easy to spot irrigated fields — they were varying shades of green. Non-irrigated fields were a uniform color — brown. Even from 30,000 feet it was easy to see that no irrigation meant no yield in the parts of the Midwest I saw.

One particular dryland field on the Ruggles farm is in a rotation that includes back to back corn. Last year the dryland field produced 170 bushels per acre. This year it produced zero. I wish all those political cynics who contend the government shouldn’t be subsidizing crop insurance programs could have just a brief conversation with a third or fourth generation Iowa or Nebraska grain farmer.

I asked Jim Ruggles, who is a third generation Nebraska farmer, which was worse this year the heat or the drought. “From the end of May until the first of August we got 1.28 inches of rain and in 40 out of 60 days during that time, we had 40 days with daytime highs more than 100 degrees,” he said. “You pick the worst.”

On more than a thousand acres of dryland corn the best he can hope for is to recover some of the input costs he put into the crop before facing the reality that it was gone. With corn selling for $8.28 a bushel — a record high in early August, hoping to break even on input costs has to be a bitter pill to swallow.

In the Southeast, my friend and Virginia Tech Soybean Specialist David Holshouser quips, “With our soils, we’re never more than a week or two from a drought.” I concur, but I hope with our weather patterns we’re never more than a week a two from a rain shower. And, I hope we never see the combination of heat and drought so many farmers in the Midwest dealt with this spring and summer.

In Nebraska, by the first week in August, more than 90 percent of the state was listed in the worst two classifications of drought. In neighboring Iowa, 70 percent was either extreme or exceptional drought — the worst two classifications.

According to the National Corn Growers Association only 15 percent of the country’s corn acreage is irrigated. Hopefully, none of that irrigation water was targeted to come from the Platte River, because it simply isn’t there. I crossed the Platte several times going from McCook to Grand Island and to Kearney, Neb. By picking my spots, I could have walked across the river in any of those places without getting my boots wet and in none of those places could I have taken a swim — not enough water.

Nebraska has more irrigated acres than any state — 8.5 million. If all those irrigation acres were on corn, the state would still have two million acres or so planted dryland. At a state average of 172 bushels per acre and a cost of $8 per bushel, roughly 2.8 billion dollars worth of corn was left to the heat and drought. With 91 percent of the state classified as being in extreme drought or worse, billion dollar losses by states like Nebraska seem unavoidable.

In neighboring Iowa there is nearly four more million acres of corn and less irrigation. With 70 percent of the state classified as in extreme drought, the picture doesn’t look any better there.

Unfortunately, when food prices increase as a result of this freak of nature, the unknowing, but ever-hungry American public is almost certainly going to look at the record high prices for corn and likely to follow record high prices for soybeans and wheat and point an accusatory finger directly at the American farmer.

As is the case in political campaigns, in food shortages and times of escalating food prices facts don’t count. I’m glad I write for the Farm Press. All of us here do the very best we can to provide farmers with the best information we can find. However, there are times I wish I could write for the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or give those in-depth 90 second news updates on network TV.

Instead my response to the ill-conceived accusations of the bilking of the food-consuming American public by American farmers will likely be limited to my space here in the Farm Press.

However, my natural response to anyone blaming farmers for the high price of food is usually of the single finger visual type and the verbal version is not suitable for print here or most anywhere else.

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