Jim Fawcett's license plate reads "CROP DR."
Jim Fawcett's license plate reads "CROP DR." Noah Adams/NPR
The price of corn is at an all-time high, but because of the weather, farmers in Iowa are having trouble growing it. In the spring, farms were already looking muddy and dismal. Then the June floods hit, ruining a half-million acres of crops. The Iowa secretary of agriculture has estimated the total damage to be around $4 billion — most of it to soy and corn.
Armed with what he refers to as a "master's in oats and a Ph.D. in weeds," agronomist Jim Fawcett is dedicated to preventing additional losses.
Fawcett, whose license plate reads "CROP DR," is responsible for eight of the eastern Iowa counties hit hardest by the floods. Driving a gray pickup with his shovel in the back, he's out every day looking at farm ponds that actually are fields, ditches cut by the rains, yellowing corn and sorry soybeans.
When Fawcett gets a call or an e-mail and then drives out to a farm, it's like a family doctor going to see about a headache — for free! The Iowa State University Extension, Fawcett's employer, offers the service without charge. Throughout the day, the "Crop Doc" responds to a long list of calls, walking the fields and offering diagnoses and solutions.
"That's Rhizoctonia root rot," he says, pulling up a bean plant on one farm. "It should be getting better if we keep on having nice days."
The Roots Of A Farm Scientist
After college, Fawcett worked for a time with an agricultural chemical company, but he came to feel that all he really did was sell chemicals. He wanted to educate and help, so he returned to Iowa and the state university extension service in 1988, just at the end of a record drought year.
He and his wife Kathleen live in a lakeside house, north of Iowa City. He often visits his nearby childhood farm, which now belongs to his cousins. He likes to stand in the yard outside the old house, he says, admiring the large old trees — a sycamore, a grand cottonwood.
Would Fawcett have been a farmer? Perhaps. But he was born with a congenital spine defect. He had surgery when he was 13 but decided he'd never develop the strength to farm, so became a farm scientist instead.
"I just wanted to find a way to help."
Indeed, helping is what he does.
At the next location, farmer Garth Gardemann stops his tractor and guides the "Doc" across a hillside of stunted corn.
"These guys are so pushed to cover their acres," he tells the Crop Doc, explaining that the neighboring farmers have let some herbicide spray across the fence line.
Fawcett agrees with the prognosis and offers to call the neighboring farmer and write a letter to help him recover the $5,000 loss.
Then it's off to another farm.