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Weathering the Drought

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Area farmers, merchants feeling effects as crops dry up from heat, lack of rain

By Dave Bell

Billowing dust plumes follow farmers’ trucks as they drive the parched gravel roads near Vandalia. And the crops lining those roads clearly illustrate the toll taken by the worst drought in decades.

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In the face of withering summer heat and three months without significant rain, corn plants have deteriorated from vibrant deep green to a sickly pale tan. Stalks are dry and brittle, having succumbed to the blast furnace heat wave that gripped this area in June and July. The drought is severe enough that some corn plants didn’t even develop ears – or if they did, they’re just short nubbins that are only partially populated by kernels.
Some fields are so devastated that farmers have simply mowed down the withered plants, or chopped them into silage to be fed to cattle.
Residents of Fayette County haven’t seen a drought this severe since 1983. The old-timers recall another bad one in 1954. From there, you have to go back to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s to find anything comparable.
Early this month, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration pronounced July the hottest month on record. It edged out the previous standard for misery that was recorded in 1936. In fact, the first seven months of the year were the warmest since NOAA began keeping records in 1895.
And though the drought conditions have impacted as much as 60 percent of the nation to some degree, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana are at the epicenter of the devastation.
The Fayette County Farm Bureau last Thursday conducted its annual crop survey – an exercise it has done for the past 29 years – to get an early reading on the likely yields in the county. As usual, the predicted yields vary widely, depending on the soil types and the precipitation that was received in various parts of the county. The data they brought back from the 48 fields they sampled did not paint a pretty picture.
For corn, the survey predicts an average yield of only 41.65 bushels per acre – less than a third of the 2011 county average of 149.69 bushels per acre. Of the fields sampled in this year’s survey, the predicted yields range from zero in some fields to 170.2 bushels per acre in the bottomland near the Kaskaskia River.
It was only marginally better for soybeans, with the survey predicting an average yield of 21.49 bushels per acre. Samples ranged from two bushels to 51 bushels per acre. The county’s actual average yield in 2011 was 32.48 bushels per acre.
•    •     •
 “I’m really ready for the smell of dead vegetation to be gone,” said Dan Laack, 57, who farms in the Vandalia area with his brother-in-law Steve Francis. “When you drive past a corn field, it smells like rotting hay.
“I’ll always remember the smells and sights of this year. They’re forever etched in my mind.”
Laack is anticipating yields of less than half of his five-year average of 150 bushels per acre for corn and 50 bushels per acre for beans.
“In some fields, the corn yield will be zero. In other fields, with better soil and that were planted early, we could see yields in the 100 bushels per acre range. The early corn will do best.”
That early corn got off to a tremendous start, as farmers took advantage of an extremely early spring to get into the fields as much as a month ahead of schedule. Corn plants with that early start were more than 7 feet tall and had started to develop ears before the rains stopped and the searing temperatures hit. Later-planted corn is stunted – some barely 5 feet tall – and the pollination process was thwarted by the harsh conditions that began in May and continued through July. During July, the area suffered through a two-week span of daily highs in the triple digits.
Soybeans were planted after the corn, and the jury is still out on what the bean yields will be. The plants themselves appear to be normal, though smaller than in normal years, but farmers are concerned that the drought conditions may have prevented the plants’ blossoms from developing pods. And even if the pods are there, the beans inside those pods need moisture to develop. Their fate will depend on August precipitation.
Laack, who is a part-time Methodist minister, also wonders about the spiritual implications of the drought.
“In the Old Testament, God allowed disasters to happen to the people of Israel to bring them back to him,” Laack said. “I wonder if this is part of a bigger plan. We’ve gotten so far away from God.”
He cites II Chronicles 7:14 as a reminder ­– and a promise. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sins and will heal their land.”
Laack says that he prays that a revival will spring out of the drought. “I can even embrace a drought if it brings us back to God. In the Old Testament, it took some hard things to bring people to their knees.”
Meanwhile, Laack looks to the book of Philippians for encouragement about living victoriously, even in the face of dismal circumstances.
“I love Paul’s attitude,” he said. “With everything he went through ­– being shipwrecked, imprisoned and beaten for his faith – he was still able to praise God.
“We live in a fallen world, so we can’t expect things to be perfect. They’re not. But I can use situations like this as a testimony to my faith. Things will be all right because God is in control. By not complaining or worrying more than I should, I can glorify God.”
•    •     •
One factor in this year’s drought that sets it apart from previous droughts is the high percentage of farmers who are now covered by crop insurance. National surveys indicate that about 85 percent of grain farmers have some sort of crop insurance coverage.
Laack estimates that his operation pays between $35,000 and $60,000 per year in crop insurance premiums. Most years, there’s no return from those payments, but this year there will be. Policies pay 80 to 85 percent of the average yield history on a field-by-field basis, based on current prices per bushel.
“In the past 15 years, we’ve paid in close to $1 million in premiums,” Laack said. “It’s an investment we’ve made to help us weather the storm in a year like this.”  
•    •     •
But the impact doesn’t end with the farmers. A drought of this magnitude will be felt by all residents of Vandalia, and in thousands of other communities like it throughout the Midwest.
For instance, John Britt, who owns Bluff Equipment in Bluff City, predicts the ripples from this summer’s drought will be significant and widespread.
“There will be a chain reaction,” Britt said. “There will be a lot of people hurt, some worse than the farmers. In every little town, the merchants will feel the effects.”
In his business, Britt said, the sale of mowers, choppers and grain wagons has slowed as the prospects for a normal harvest have dimmed. But farmers are continuing with their orders for the big-ticket items, such as tractors and combines.
“A lot of our equipment is ordered a year ahead,” he said, “and we haven’t had anybody back out of a purchase. Fortunately, a lot of farmers have taken out crop insurance. That will be their salvation.”
•    •     •
Ernie Chappel, president of First National Bank in Vandalia, agrees that the economic fallout from the drought could be severe.
“The trickle-down effects will be extensive,” he said. “Ag is the main economic driver in this community, so the compounding effect of the drought will be felt for a while. Crop insurance helps the farmers, but other businesses are not helped.”
Though crop insurance policies vary, Chappel said that most pay the farmer 80 to 85 percent of the average yields from previous years on each field. Thus, if a field of corn averaged 150 bushels per acre, 80 percent of that would be 120 bushels. At the current price of about $8 per bushel, that would generate an insurance payment of $960 per acre.
He noted that area farmers have had a couple of good years in 2010 and 2011, and should be able to weather the downturn – as long as it doesn’t persist into 2013.
“The key will be 2013,” said Chappel. “Can we get the yields back and will the prices rebound? We don’t need another year like this.”
•    •     •
At Cripe Grain in Bluff City, Ken Cripe is trying to stay positive, but he knows there will be difficult times ahead.
“I don’t want to be doom and gloom, but I’ve seen this before,” Cripe said. “In 1983, we had the same problem, with little or no corn harvested; it took several years to make it up. The difference in ’83 was that the drought wasn’t as widespread as it is this year.”
At the elevator, which Cripe operates with his brother, Brian, and several other family members, the operation makes its money from the storage, drying and transportation of grain. To do that, it must have a certain volume of grain – which will be tough to do this year.
He, too, foresees a significant impact on the entire economy.
“It’s going to trickle down,” he said. “Car dealers, implement dealers, even Wal-Mart will feel the impact.
“It’s tough to deal with, but you just have to keep moving on. We’ve had 29 decent years since the last major drought, and if one kicks you, you get up and keep going. You’ve got to stay positive.”
The frustrating thing about this year is that it started off so well.
“In early June, things looked great,” Cripe said. “We had one of the best crops in recent years going. Then, in the past eight weeks, it all went south.”
He said that grain prices already have jumped up as the prospects for a decent harvest have slipped away. Corn is nearing $8 a bushel, soybeans have topped $16.50 and wheat is around $8.
Cripe predicted that many farmers will consider planting winter wheat this fall, just so they can have some income next spring. After the wheat is harvested in early summer, most wheat fields will be double-cropped – planted with soybeans, which will be harvested in the fall.
•    •     •
Now in his 58th year in the fertilizer business, Herb Woolsey has seen it all. Good years and bad years. Floods and droughts. And he knows the tough road that lies ahead for farmers – and farm-related businesses – in the wake of this year’s drought.
“There’s not much good news out there right now,” said Woolsey, who is president of Woolsey Brothers Farm Supply, which provides fluid fertilizer, herbicides, insecticides and seed. “Our business goes back to 1954, so I’ve been through a few of these. This will impact the entire area negatively. But I have a habit of looking for the bright side of things, even when there’s not a lot of bright there.
“We must keep the faith. I thank the Lord for the rain we received in early August, even though it’s probably too late to help most of the corn.”
Though he’s inclined to look for the silver lining, Woolsey is aware that some operators will be hurt – particularly the young farmers and the 10-20 percent of operators who didn’t have crop insurance.
“The good managers will come through this,” Woolsey said. “But for those who haven’t managed well, it will be a long, hard road to get back on their feet.
“It’s more important than ever that they make every dollar they invest pay off the best that they can. There’s not any room for any unjustified extravagance at any point in their operation. But they don’t want to be so frugal that they don’t provide what the crop needs to reach its potential.”
•    •     •
Though it’s too early for the full impact of the drought to be felt at Arthur Young Chevrolet, Dennis Young said that his service work has increased.
“People are fixing up what they have,” he said. “We’ll see in the fall how things go. Normally, the farmers don’t do their spending until harvest is done.
“Hopefully, the recent rains will help the beans.”
•    •     •
The Rev. Pete LeDuc has a unique perspective on the drought. Before he entered the ministry, he worked for 20 years as shop foreman at Green/Line Equipment in Farina. He still keeps his hand in farming by baling hay and working part-time at a local grain elevator.
As the pastor of Crown Point Church in rural Vandalia, he knows first-hand how the hardships faced by area farmers are likely to impact members of his congregation.
“When things start going bad, we realize that we’re not in control,” LeDuc said. “But God is great enough to provide – even in a drought. He can take the things that seem to be devastating and turn them around to be a blessing. I want to see how God will use this in a great and mighty way.”
He’s hopeful that the introduction crop insurance in recent decades will help moderate the economic blows that previous droughts have delivered.
“Thirty years ago, it was devastating,” LeDuc said. “A year without income can devastate a farm. Crop insurance will allow them to save the farm.”
•    •     •
 “I don’t think we fully understand the implications of this drought, and all the ways it will affect our country,” Laack concluded. “The trickle-down effects will be widespread.
“Jesus told the parable about one man who built his house on the sand and another man who build his house on a rock. Christ is my rock; the farm is not my rock. That keeps my foundation from shifting, even during the worst farming year I’ve ever seen.”