Rains Threaten Promise of Good Harvest

By David L. Brown

We remember with a shudder the spike in food prices last year that seemed to push the world toward famine. As the U.S. is one of the few remaining exporters of food in the world, the harvest here is pretty important. And, thanks to plenty of rain during the growing season, 2009 was looking like a great season for corn and soybeans across the farm belt.

Just three weeks ago, on October 9, the Dept. of Agriculture issued a news release predicting an excellent harvest of corn, soybeans and other crops. Here is what the USDA news release (read it here) had to say about corn and beans:

Corn production is forecast at 13.0 billion bushels, up 8 percent from last year and down only 0.2 percent from the 2007 record. Corn yield is expected to average 164.2 bushels per acre, up 10.3 bushels above last year. If realized, this yield will be the highest on record. Corn growers are expected to harvest 79.3 million acres, down 1 percent from the September forecast.

Soybean production remains on target for a record-high year and is forecast at 3.25 billion bushels, up 10 percent from 2008. Based on October 1 conditions, soybean yields are expected to average 42.4 bushels per acre, up 2.7 percent from 2008. If realized, this will be the third highest yield on record. Growers are expected to harvest 76.6 million acres of soybeans, which is the largest area on record.

10-29-09_18281Pretty good news, right? But what a difference three weeks can make. I am reminded of the old saying: “Man Plans, God Laughs.”

It seems that things are not going too well in this harvest season. Many crops were planted late due to excessive Spring rains, or replanted because of flooding. Now the harvest is running late and the rains have returned to keep farmers out of the field, or to create disasters if they do venture forth. The picture at left tells the story. It was taken yesterday in Clark County, Arkansas.

And it’s not just in Arkansas that rainy weather has struck throughout October. Following are on-the-scene reports posted today by farmers on the AgWeb.com website (here). To give you a good feel for what’s happening right now, I’m posting nearly all of today’s comments. Here’s what farmers were saying today:

Menard County, Central Illinois: I think it is time to remind everyone (or maybe you realize) that just because there is a week of dry weather in the forecast we are actually going to be harvesting for that whole week! Around here we are probably looking at 4 or 5 good drying days before we could consider getting back in the field, and we will still be making a mess.  I also expect the Sangamon River and Salt Creek to come out of there banks today and tomorrow, affecting thousands of un-harvested acres.  I would estimate that harvest progress for this area is: corn 20% complete, soybeans 40%. What a year…good luck.

Bond County, South Central Illinois: UN-FREAKIN-BELIEVABLE.

Huntington County, Northeast Indiana: We are having RAIN for the umpteenth time this month!!  We still have 125 acres of beans to cut.  And they are really good beans.  Yielding really well.  We have shelled a very small amount of corn and it was wetter than we have dried for several years.  25-30 [percent] moisture.  We hope we have a lot of nice days in November.  Stay safe and keep smiling.

Audrain County, Mo.: Lindsey Benne, Beef Today and Dairy Today Art Director: Farmers are hauling in gravel to their fields just to get in and out.

Carlos, Minn.: It has been raining off and on for 3 weeks. We got a start to the beans 3 weeks ago, some of my neighbors were out on Tuesday the only day of full sun and wind that we had. The beans were between 18-28 %. I don’t have the balls to try that yet. I thought we could go on Wednesday but at 10 am it started to drizzle and it has been raining ever since to get through the gloom we have put the carpenter belt on to do some remolding have a safe harvest say a pray for dry weather.

Opole, Minn.: Rain, rain, go away, and come back next July day!!!

Lafayette County Wis.: WET, WET, WET. I guess we are all in the same boat. We are way, way behind. Corn is developing green mold. Broker says when weather straightens out there is a big crop out there. Problem is will the sun ever shine again?  Stay safe everyone…a safe harvest is a good harvest.

Nebraska Panhandle: Guess we don’t have to worry about the irrigated corn blowing over before harvest, the snow is holding it up!

Buena Vista County, Northwest Iowa: Raining here again, close to 10 inches now in October, Still some beans out in the fields here, I just got done, Yields decent in the 50’s which is normal. Some have gave up on beans and started corn, most of it from what I’ve heard is anywhere from 20% to 40% moisture and yields from 120 to 220, with very low test weights.  Stalk Rot now a real concern & some guys are finding green snap [broken stalks] they didn’t know they had, those yields cut in half.  I believe this harvest, when it’s over, if ever will be one, we all will want to forget!

Cass County, Iowa: 1.4 in. of rain so far today and it’s still raining. I’ve only run 80 acres of beans in October. It rains or drizzles nearly every day. Yields are great with beans 50 to 62 and most corn over 200 but wet @ 23 to 25%.  It’s going to be a long fall at this pace.

So, let us make a wild guess: The excellent harvests predicted just a few weeks ago are in big trouble, especially if the rains continue. When crops remain in the field past their “use by date,” they quickly begin to deteriorate. As some of the farmers quoted above mention, mold can damage the kernels, especially in wet conditions. Stalk rot can set in, allowing wind to blow down the mature stalks, making it impossible to harvest with a combine. (In the old days, farmers would respond to that problem by turning cattle or hogs into the fields to chow on the fallen crops … but that was in the days when most farms had livestock, and most  fields had fences.)

The world supply of food is running dangerously low, and a poor harvest in the U.S. is potentially disastrous, especially in light of severe drought conditions in Australia and northern China this season. If we go into 2010 with anything less than bin-busting yields, another world food crisis is almost certain to develop. And, as I pointed out in an essay on June 2 (here), famine doesn’t result from a shortage of money (although there is a lot of that going around), but a shortage of food. Hungry people can’t eat money, and money can’t feed hungry people when there isn’t enough food to buy.

A major weather front is now moving east out of the Midwest, bringing promise of several sunny days. However, as the farmer from Menard County, Illinois pointed out above, it takes at least four or five days for ground to dry sufficiently to get machinery into the fields. If another front moves through in a week or so, we could see another cycle of mud and gloom.

I’ll keep an eye on this unfolding threat, and, oh … could something called “climate change” have anything to do with this? Surely not.

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