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Across America's corn belt, farmers are hoping this fall's harvest will be one for the record books. Iowa Public Radio's Sarah McCammon reports that planting season is off to a strong start and farmers say they're putting in more acres of corn than they have since the Great Depression.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It's too early to predict whether this year's harvest will set a record, but it's looking pretty good right now.
BILL COUSER: This corn crop will knock your socks off if all the stars line up and the good Lord gives us that blessing.
MCCAMMON: That's Bill Couser. He grows crops and raises cattle near Nevada in central Iowa. Dressed in black overalls, he trudges through a field dotted with remnants of last year's cornstalks and inspects the tiny leaves that are beginning to poke through the dark soil.
COUSER: But, anyway, you see this one is just - you can just start seeing everything kind of popping up through, so you know, by fall...
MCCAMMON: Like lots of corn growers here, Couser's planting has moved along quickly, thanks to a mild spring, but at 57 and after decades of farming, Couser knows better than to get too excited just yet. A lot could still affect the crop, from droughts to floods to pests and diseases.
But starting early can give farmers an edge. The National Corn Growers Association's Paul Bertels says the plants have more time to grow before they're up against Midwestern midsummer scorchers.
PAUL BERTELS: The sooner you get the crop in - provided you don't have a cold snap - and you'll actually get that plant through pollination before the real heat of the summer.
MCCAMMON: Corn growers nationwide are planting at about twice the rate of a typical year. More than half the crop is already in the ground and not just that. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says farmers intend to plant more than 95 million acres of corn this year. That's four million more than last year and close to 10 million more than the year that yielded the biggest harvest yet.
If farmers follow through on those plans, it would be the most acres of corn since 1937. And better seeds and improved farming methods mean yields are a lot higher now, so we're likely looking at what could be a bumper crop.
Despite Couser's optimism, though, he worries about the downside. A big crop could suppress prices while the cost of farming holds steady.
COUSER: Farmers are their worst enemies because what we do is we always do what we do best and that's overproduce. If we have more corn than what we can use in ethanol, what are we going to do with that corn? The cattle numbers are down, so where does that corn go?
MCCAMMON: Never fear, says Chad Hart, it will go somewhere. He's an economist with Iowa State University Extension. Hart says corn prices would probably drop a bit, maybe a dollar or so below today's price of more than $6 a bushel, but that's still a lot better than the two or three bucks corn was fetching as recently as the mid-2000s. And Hart doesn't expect any shortage of buyers.
CHAD HART: We've seen ethanol demand really take off over the past five years. We're also starting to see export demands, specifically to the Pacific Rim, so as long as that demand for the crop continues to build as quickly as our yield increases go, that can help us maintain prices at a fairly healthy level.
MCCAMMON: Healthy prices, plus a healthy crop could mean the stars align perfectly for corn farmers this year, but if there's anything a farmer will tell you, it's never count your bushels before they're harvested.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Des Moines.
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