Kansas farmer Luke Ulrich pilots his combine through the last eight rows of this year's ragged crop, which produced far less than half the normal yield.
After one of the driest summers on record, recent rains have helped in some parts of the country. But overall, the drought has still intensified. The latest tracking classifies more than a fifth of the contiguous United States in "extreme or exceptional" drought, the worst ratings.
In some parts of the Lower Midwest, water-starved crops have collapsed, but the farmers have not. Farmers across the country are surviving, and many are even thriving. This year, despite the dismal season, farmers stand to make exceptionally good money, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Here in 2012, USDA expects net farm incomes to reach their second-highest level on record," says Jason Henderson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
There are a few reasons for these incredible gains after the brutal drought. For one, with fewer crops being produced, the prices of those crops skyrocketed.
"Crop prices, grain prices, oilseed prices, wheat prices — prices are very, very high," says Dave Swenson, who teaches economics at Iowa State University.
Swenson says that farmers relatively unscathed by the drought, through irrigation or good luck, are having a banner year.
The dairy Eric Neill and his wife operate in Freeman, Mo., nearly went under this summer, crushed by high feed prices from drought-scarce grains. The farm was saved by restorative rains brought by Hurricane Isaac.
The dairy Eric Neill and his wife operate in Freeman, Mo., nearly went under this summer, crushed by high feed prices from drought-scarce grains. The farm was saved by restorative rains brought by Hurricane Isaac. Frank Morris/KCUR
The Good And Bad Of High Grain Prices
Roy Berghaus, who farms the hills near Farmington, Mo., figures he'll make ends meet, harvesting only a third of his normal corn crop.
"Price is the only salvation," he says. "Hopefully it will keep the operation going."
While those high crop prices meant deliverance for some, farmers with animals got the worst of the drought this year as feed grew scarce and extremely expensive.
"I honestly probably wanted to quit several times, just hang it up," dairy farmer Julie Neill of Freeman, Mo., says of the trying summer months. "But there was a lot to that decision. It was giving up a lifetime of everything that we have made."
These days, Neill and Sons Dairy looks pretty lush after a rain, with happy cows crowding together for a drink of fresh water. But all summer, Neill watched the pastures wither and the business unwind. The Neills had to borrow heavily, about $50,000, just to keep their cows alive. Neighbors lent encouragement, and heavy equipment. The farm was in intensive care.
"Honestly, I think it was more on death row," Neill says. "It just didn't feel like it was ever going to end."
For the Neills, relief came as the remnants of Hurricane Isaac — the storm that slammed Louisiana last month — quenched large parts of Arkansas and Missouri.
"We had 5 1/4 inches of rain here," says Neill's husband, Eric. "We had no runoff. Within four days, we had grass growing, and the cows started grazing again."
Today, Neill's cows stand in a field of bright green, knee-high grass, gobbling their fill and making milk.
With far less than half of their normal corn yield, the Ulrich brothers are relying in part on government-subsidized crop insurance to keep their farm afloat.
With far less than half of their normal corn yield, the Ulrich brothers are relying in part on government-subsidized crop insurance to keep their farm afloat. Frank Morris/KCUR
New Hybrids And Good Old Insurance
But 45 miles west of Neill and Sons, near Baldwin City, Kan., Isaac petered out, bringing too little rain too late in the season to help Luke Ulrich's corn crop.
As Ulrich pilots his big, green combine, harvesting the last eight rows of this year's ragged crop, it amounts to far less than half the normal yield — typical of what farmers are pulling in across the Lower Midwest where drought destroyed billions of bushels of corn.
Ulrich and his brother Jordan are looking to government-subsidized crop insurance to help make up for some of the havoc the drought wreaked on their farm. The insurance, which most Corn Belt farmers carry, is another major boost for farm income: It will likely pay out upward of $15 billion this year.
"Definitely the crop insurance helps, but everybody's situation's different," Jordan Ulrich says.
The crop insurance will only help the Ulrich brothers so much, because they have especially high overhead: They rent farm land and carry a lot of debt. Crop insurance won't pay the mortgage, though the USDA is offering very low interest emergency loans for farmers in their situation.
But Luke Ulrich says there's another way they're staying afloat: newer hybrid soybeans that hung on and are expected to produce a fairly decent and very lucrative crop. "The only bright spot, and I use that term loosely, [is] we can't figure out how these soybeans stayed alive," he says.
While the drought is far from over, U.S. agriculture seems to be coping better than expected. Farmers aren't being forced off the land in huge numbers, and many will go into next year with the tools they need to keep producing enormous amounts of food, weather permitting.