HARTFORD CITY, Ind. — Across a wide stretch of Midwestern farms, sweltering temperatures and a dearth of rain are threatening what was expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.
Already, some farmers in Illinois and Missouri have given up on parched and stunted fields, mowing them over. National experts say parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions. And in at least nine states, conditions in one-fifth to one-half of cornfields have been deemed poor or very poor, federal authorities reported this week, a notable shift from the high expectations of just a month before.
Crop insurance agents and agricultural economists are watching closely, a few comparing the situation with a devastating drought of 1988, when corn yields shriveled significantly, while some farmers have begun alluding, unhappily, to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
For farmers, especially those without insurance, the pressure mounts, they say, with each check on the morning weather forecast. But the worries have quickly spread: Corn prices have risen on the Chicago Board of Trade in recent days on the likelihood of a smaller crop, as analysts weigh the broader prospect of rising prices for food and ethanol production.
“You wake up every morning with that churning in your stomach,” said Eric Aulbach, a farmer here in central Indiana.
Some experts sound less pessimistic, saying the ultimate fate of the nation’s corn crop, the largest in the world, cannot be known until later in the summer, after pollination, when it is clear whether kernels or empty spaces fill the ears of corn and whether enough ears appear at all.
“This is a moving target,” said Darrel Good, a professor emeritus of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But what we know is this: There’s been some permanent and substantive yield reduction already, and we’re on the cusp, depending on the weather, of taking that down quite a bit more.”
For much of the region, the next few weeks — as the plants’ tassels shed pollen to fertilize the silks and create kernels — are crucial.
“All we can do is hope and wait,” Aulbach said, lifting a handful of Indiana soil and trying to shape it together in his fingers, only to watch it slip away, a dusty powder.