Last Tuesday’s rainfall of less than half an inch in most of Boone County briefly interrupted a 43-day dry spell. But with no significant rainfall predicted in the foreseeable future and temperatures in the 90s expected all week, Boone County farmers’ crop yield losses are mounting.
Efforts to assess the potential economic fallout are in early stages. It is too soon to say what type of assistance farmers might get or whether consumers will feel the effects of the drought in their pocketbooks.
“It’s really hard this time of year. There’s not a lot of information just yet,” said Pat Westhoff, an agricultural economist at MU’s Farm and Agriculture Research Policy Institute.
On July 21, Gov. Matt Blunt directed the Missouri Farm Service to prepare crop damage assessments. But until mid-August when the county’s 1,388 farms begin to harvest, what the assessment can glean is just a rough estimate — and in this case, a grim prediction.
The county’s Emergency Board is projecting a 50 to 70 percent loss of the Boone County corn crop and a 40 percent loss on soybeans, said Kim Viers, executive director of the Missouri Farm Service agency’s Boone County office.
“We were, of course, concerned, but we’re still hopeful that some rain will come,” Viers said. “If it does, there will still be a loss, but not as bad as it could be.”
Bill Wiebold, an agronomist with MU’s extension service, said that there is little hope for the corn crop, which was scorched two weeks ago during its pollination period, but the story’s not over for soybeans.
“We still have a chance to make yield if it rains in the next seven to 10 days,” Wiebold said at a crop injury clinic held last week. “But boy, it doesn’t look very good in the forecast.”
A tale of two seasons
Farming is often a boom or bust business, with each new season bringing the possibility of bumper crops or slim pickings. The past two years have illustrated the extremes. Nearly perfect growing conditions statewide last year helped six crops post all-time yield records. Corn surpassed the previous record by 18 percent, and the soybean crop shattered its mark by 20 percent.
In Boone County, last year’s corn yields averaged 172 bushels per acre, bettering the state figure by 10 bushels. Soybeans managed to yield 56 bushels per acre, 11 bushels higher than the state average.
“It kind of makes it worse this year because we still remember awful good yields, good crops and fair markets,” said Tim Kelley, executive director of the Missouri Farm Service agency.
Last year’s surpluses of corn and soybeans, along with simple economics, could haunt local farmers in another fashion. Despite the projected low yields in Boone County and throughout the state this year, the supply will not change dramatically.
For July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reduced its yield projections by only 2 percent for corn and 9 percent for soybeans. That means, Westhoff and Kelley said, that prices are unlikely to rise.
“Nobody else is having a problem, but you’re having a problem where you’re at,” Westhoff said. “That’s the worst of all worlds from a farm income standpoint.”
Kelley’s analysis was blunt: “It’s a double-whammy for Missouri farmers.”
In the fields
John Sam Williamson Jr., a sixth-generation farmer whose family has worked the land at the Missouri River bottoms near McBaine since 1827, tends to 300 acres of corn and more than 850 acres of soybean crop. Williamson said last year’s yield was one of the best crops he’s ever had.
“We had 180 bushels per acre of corn and about 40 bushels per acre of soybeans last year,” Williamson said. “This year won’t come close to that total.”
Williamson said he’s hoping for 80 to 120 bushels per acre of corn this year. Rainfall could help save some of his soybean crop, Williamson said. His corn, however, wouldn’t benefit much from rainfall at this point.
“Corn is a determinate crop,” Williamson said. “It’s genetically patterned to be ready so many days after germination. It can’t wait on the rain.”
Williamson said he’s still hoping for some rain in the near future.
“Farmers are eternally optimistic,” Williamson said. “We always hope things will turn out.”
“Whether the yield reduction is going to be 30, 50 or 70 percent, you don’t know,” Williamson said. “If you did know, you could get a job with the board of trade because it’s like forecasting the weather.”
When the harvest is in and the numbers are tallied, farmers in Boone County and throughout the state could receive compensation for crop losses through a federal disaster program.
Tim Kelley said the Farm Agency would first submit its assessment to the governor and to the USDA office in Washington, D.C., for review. At that point, Blunt could ask Anne Veneman, the U.S. secretary of agriculture, to make emergency loans available to farmers in the interim.
“It’s kind of a fill-in-the-gap type of loan to help producers pay their bills,” Kelley said. “They could come in and get money to pay the seed bills for the crop.”
Boone County farmers could receive payments if their loss, for example, is more than 50 percent. If a farmer qualifies, a payment is calculated by multiplying the amount lost by the previous year’s commodity price.
Kelley said that a similar program was created for the 2003-2004 crop year, and that it has paid out close to $49 million to Missouri farmers. He did not want to speculate on what a figure would be for this year’s crop.
Boone County farmers might also have to dust off their crop insurance policies.
Crop revenue coverage is a popular form of insurance for crops because it pays out when a farmer experiences a significant crop loss — not just when the loss is total, as does a basic catastrophic coverage policy.
Viers said that while this year’s drought is taking a heavy toll, it’s not a new occurrence for farmers.
“That’s the way farming works,” Viers said. “Almost all farmers know what they’re getting into and that some years will be better than others.”
Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.