Illinois Farmers Battle Drought

Farmers in rural Illinois are struggling with the worst drought conditions in two decades. Tom Rogers of member station WILL reports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Agricultural experts are wrapping up their annual tour through the nation's Corn Belt. While they're estimating slightly smaller crops in Nebraska and Ohio, expectations drop off sharply when they get to Illinois. That's because many Illinois farmers have suffered through a spot drought, the worst in nearly two decades. Tom Rogers of member station WILL reports.

TOM ROGERS reporting:

For a change, the sun isn't quite as unrelenting today over Ted Harding's 1,400 acres of corn and soybeans west of Peoria. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves in this stand of cornstalks. And with an ironic chuckle, Harding will tell you that this was no typical drought. Where it rained sometimes depended on just which field you stood in.

Mr. TED HARDING (Farmer): It rains on the just and the unjust, so we're not sure where we stand.

ROGERS: Harding says you need to walk well into the field, then pull some husks off the still-green ears to see rows of missing kernels.

Mr. HARDING: You know, that's the thing that's kind of hard to figure out, why one plant will have a good ear like that and the next plant right next to it will have an ear half that size. And that's just--when Mother Nature doesn't cooperate, why, strange things happen.

ROGERS: Even the cob Harding is holding looks better than the ones with no kernels at all. Some plants never even produced cobs. Rain has now come to northern and western Illinois, possibly enough to improve the area's soybeans but too late to save cornfields. Illinois state climatologist Jim Angel says summer storms are often spotty, but a vicious cycle begins when the ground underneath those storms is dry.

Mr. JIM ANGEL (Climatologist): Those can't tap into the moisture because it's just not there on the surface, and that's how those are fed. So it kind of cuts them off at the knees. So you either get--not only get fewer thunderstorms, but when you do get them they drop a quarter of an inch instead of two inches.

ROGERS: Even more grating to farmers is the limited scope of the drought. A map of rainfall deficiency paints a bull's-eye on west-central Illinois. July brought two and a half inches of rain to the Peoria area, about a third of normal, but it has been raining in neighboring states. At a recent meeting of farmers, Gary Schnitkey, an economist with the University of Illinois Extension, said grain supplies just aren't as tight as they are after far-reaching droughts.

Mr. GARY SCHNITKEY (Economist, University of Illinois Extension): Usually, you'd expect some price increases, and we're not seeing that because the drought isn't as widespread as, say, the 1988 drought. So we don't have the price increases there.

ROGERS: Municipal water supplies were also taxed during those dry years of the late '80s. Now, though, the only water restrictions in Illinois were enacted because people used so much water that the delivery systems weren't keeping up. Still, the state water survey says some livestock farmers who rely on ponds or private wells have taken to hauling water.

There's another drought-related concern for corn farmers; that's aflatoxin. It's the byproduct of a fungus that thrives on drought and heat-stressed corn. High levels of aflatoxin can make corn unfit for human consumption or even for livestock feed. Harding says while it's hard to test for it, federal insurance programs require farmers to detect it while the corn is still out in the field. Once it's harvested and in the bin, it's the farmer's problem.

Crop insurance will help some farmers get by, though it doesn't completely cover the loss, and a Federal Disaster Declaration will let Ted Harding apply for low-interest loans.

Mr. HARDING: It will help you put in next year's crop, but it's not really going to help a tremendous amount.

ROGERS: This will be a year of belt-tightening, refinancing debts, deferring loan payments or just putting off that new combine. Those decisions make the drought everyone's economic problem in rural Illinois, even if they don't farm 1,400 acres of corn.

For NPR News, I'm Tom Rogers.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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