'Flash Drought' Threatens To Destroy Mo. Crops

Climatologists call it a "flash drought," a sudden, unexpected burst of high temperatures and low humidity that can wither crops in a matter of days. And with temperatures hovering above 90 degrees, farmers worry the weather could have disastrous consequences on corn and other crops.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. Climatologists call it a flash drought - a sudden, unexpected burst of high temperatures and low humidity. It can wither crops in a matter of days and it's happening in many parts of the Midwest. With temperatures hovering above 90 degrees, farmers worry the weather could have disastrous consequences on corn and other crops.

From St. Louis Public Radio, Adam Allington has that story.

ADAM ALLINGTON, BYLINE: Ed Marshall farms about 8,000 acres of corn, wheat and soybeans in the far southeast corner of Missouri known as the Boot Heel. He was actually speaking to me on a cell phone from his combine while harvesting wheat.

ED MARSHALL: You know, I'm in the cab with the air conditioner on and this is the place to be if you want to be on the farm today because it is very windy and hot out there.

ALLINGTON: Last year at this point, Marshall's corn and wheat were submerged under several feet of Mississippi flood water. So far, this spring has been one of the driest on record, all the more concerning, Marshall says, because May is typically Missouri's wettest month.

MARSHALL: If we don't get a break in the weather in the next few weeks for this corn - yeah, it's going to be devastating. It'll be really hard on a lot of people.

ALLINGTON: Marshall says, without sufficient moisture, corn and soybean yields will suffer or, in the worst case, could be a total loss. And it isn't just Missouri that's experiencing drought. Unseasonably dry conditions are popping up across Kentucky, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and parts of Illinois.

PAT GUINAN: The faucet has pretty much been turned off across the state as a whole.

ALLINGTON: Pat Guinan is the Missouri state climatologist. He says the combination of high temperatures and low humidity caused by clear, cloudless skies has created drought-like conditions unusually fast.

GUINAN: Drought can be as much temperature-driven as it can be by lack of precipitation and, when they go hand-in-hand, that can pretty much put a drought on fast forward and that's the situation we've seen.

ALLINGTON: Guinan says temperatures across the state have been four to six degrees above normal, sucking ponds dry and burning up pastures.

Ben Davis owns a cow/calf operation outside of Bonne Terre, Missouri.

BEN DAVIS: Grass is our crop and we sell it to the cows. You know, if we run out of grass, you know, our options get rather slim.

ALLINGTON: As we walk through one of Davis' pastures, a pack of coyotes starts up across the dusty gravel road. Davis stops and reaches down to pluck a few stocks of dry, wiry grass.

DAVIS: And all this tall, stemmy stuff - they don't really eat that and they really shouldn't because the quality's not very good. The stuff the cattle should eat is way down here low and it's the leafy kind of stuff and there's just not much there.

ALLINGTON: Unlike row crops, cattle farmers like Davis typically don't carry insurance for pastures and, if it doesn't rain soon, Davis says he'll have to choose between buying expensive hay or selling down his herd, which can affect future profits.

DAVIS: Boy, I sure hope it starts raining because it's going to get serious real fast. When the grass doesn't grow and there's 42 cows out here, you know, they're going to eat 30 pounds a day every day.

ALLINGTON: Davis figures he still has a few more weeks before things get critical, but he still has to make it through the long, hot summer and with early estimates by the USDA talking about the potential for a record-breaking corn crop, it isn't just Missouri farmers who are hoping that this flash drought threat goes away as quickly as it came on.

For NPR News, I'm Adam Allington in St. Louis.

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