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Drought Conditions Threaten US Corn Crop, Farmers, Local Economies

This year’s corn crop is suffering, as are farmers, as a result of the unrelenting heat wave and lack of rainfall that’s affecting much of America’s heartland. The Agriculture Dept. recently slashed its estimate of US corn yields, with forecasters predicting persistent hot and dry weather across much of the “Corn Belt,” according to a July 16 Climate Wire report (subscription required).

The US Drought Monitor report now estimates that 30 percent of this year’s corn crop is in poor or very poor condition. That’s up from 22 percent the week before. Half of all US grazing pasture is in similar straits, up from 28 percent in mid-May.

Futures contract prices for corn surged after the USDA cut its forecast corn yield by 20 bushels per acre to 146, down from a previous estimate of 166 bushels per acre. Poor corn and hay yields may well result in higher prices for a wide range of consumer staples– from cooking oil to meat and the wide range of beverages and drinks sweetened with corn syrup. Then there’s the 14 billion gallons of ethanol that was produced in the US in 2011, the vast majority of which is produced from corn.

Taken by Surprise

The heat wave and dry conditions has taken many by surprise. “We came in with a near-record 14 [billion] to 15 billion bushels planted, and we anticipated harvesting an average of 166 bushels per acre — the highest ever,” Rick Tolman, CEO of the National Corn Growers Association told ClimateWire.

“Our current best estimate is 140 bushels per acre and a 12.5-billion-bushel crop. That’s a significant decline. It’s based on conditions now, but if it continues, we anticipate a 120-bushel national average.”

This is the time of year when corn plants are pollinating, and they need the right mix of sun and moisture to produce kernels, Tolman explained. The hot, dry weather is a “double whammy for producers,” according to ClimateWire’s report.

Farms in the heart of the US Corn Belt– those in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Iowa, have been hit the hardest, Tolman continued. Upper Great Plains states and areas in Minnesota where corn is grown have shown some improvement apparently, and irrigated corn crop land in western Kansas and Colorado are holding up. Eighty-five percent of the US corn crop is grown on land that isn’t irrigated, however, Tolman noted.

Checking in with agricultural meteorologists at AccuWeather, ClimateWire found that “new and frequent heat waves and ‘stingy rainfall'” is forecast for the western Corn Belt through mid-August.

In addition to higher consumer prices, farmers’ incomes are increasingly likely to be hit hard this year as a result of the extreme weather, which bodes ill for local Corn Belt economies.

Weather Anomalies, Climate Change

Increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions is in line with predictions by climate scientists regarding the effects of global warming. And it’s not only the Corn Belt where such conditions are being experienced.

“In response to the widening drought, with nearly 80 percent of the contiguous United States experiencing abnormally dry conditions, USDA has declared a natural disaster in more than 1,000 counties in 26 states,” ClimateWire reports.

The Agriculture Dept.’s altering its disaster relief efforts for farmers and ranchers affected by the drought such that the processing time for disaster relief funds is reduced by 40% and the interest rate on emergency loans has been cut from 3.75% to 2.25%.

“We’ve had three years where corn yields have been below trend,” Tolman was quoted as saying. “It’s the first time in 120 years that we’ve had that. In the spring, we thought we had a really good year coming. We planted 96 million acres, the most since 1937. We’ve had high heat and no rain this year. The combination of the two is deadly.”

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