Isaac delivers a bit of relief to the Corn Belt

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WARRENTON, Mo. -- All through the scorching summer, as their crops withered under cloudless skies, Corn Belt farmers waited and prayed for this moment. Now, courtesy of Hurricane Isaac, it has finally arrived: three days of rain to soak their parched fields and soften the cracked soil.

"It's a dead-still, straight-down rain," Greg Schneider, who lost 80 percent of his corn crop to this summer's drought, said as he watched the storm from his dining room window. "This is exactly the kind of rain we needed."

But the timing was off. They needed this rain -- and more -- two months ago, when their shriveled corn was broiling in its husks, their pastures were dying and their soybeans were dropping from the vines. Farmers from Missouri to Indiana to Ohio welcomed the 3 to 5 inches of rain Isaac deposited as it churned east across the Midwest, but they said it came too late to save much of this year's failed crop.

"Ain't much we can do at this point," Mr. Schneider said.

This is corn country, and for the most part, the battle to save the corn is already lost. Nationwide, the government has drastically reduced its estimates for the year's corn yield to the lowest levels since 1995.

Months of searing heat accelerated the growing cycle this summer, and farmers here have already harvested corn that in normal years would still be ripening. As Isaac approached, many raced to finish hauling in the corn, worried that fierce winds from the storm could flood their fields or mow down the brittle cornstalks, destroying even more of the paltry harvest.

Those fears did not materialize, however. As the rains washed across Missouri over the weekend, they recharged wells, refilled shrunken irrigation ponds and trickled into parched creek beds. Farmers watched happily as their soybean fields drank up the moisture, and ground that had been nearly impermeable to plow blades began to squish underfoot.

"Isaac will be a good start," said Scott Killpack, an agronomist at the University of Missouri's extension office in St. Charles County. "How well they recover, only time will tell."

Isaac's rains may fortify younger soybean plants, whose leaves are not already jaundiced, allowing the beans to plump up on the vine. It should help farmers sow winter wheat later this month, and it should help revive the pastures where cattle have been grazing on nubs of dead grass.

But it will take weeks to measure the rain's effect on late-summer crops, and even longer to know whether the storms offered anything more than a teasing break from the drought. The government's latest assessment of the record-breaking drought, released before the shards of the hurricane moved north, contained only the tiniest hints of improvement.

Isaac certainly did not help the entire drought-plagued area, swinging too far east to bring any relief to Plains states like Kansas and Nebraska. And after two brutal summers, even the farmers who benefited were still cautious.

"Just because we're getting a lot of rain doesn't mean we're out of the drought," said Jim Boerding, a farmer in St. Charles, Mo., where a few tornadoes were spotted Saturday as the storm pushed through.

It has been a brutal summer. The baked ground ripped open as if riven by an earthquake. It has rained so little that Mr. Boerding can tick off every storm, from the half-inch he got last weekend, to the 3-incher a few weeks ago.

Mr. Boerding said he lost just under half of his corn crop. As the pastures went brown, he had to pay $100 each for bales of hay -- about triple the usual price -- to feed his 10 cows. He held on to the cows, but other dairy farmers and ranchers dumped their cattle at auctions to cut their losses.

In St. Peters, Mo., Jim Bethmann took a walk through his dripping fields Sunday morning and pronounced himself pleased.

"We have abundant moisture for the moment," he said. "It's soaking in. It was welcome."

Yes, it was too late to salvage his devastated corn crop, but he was crossing his fingers that the rain would perk up his late-season soybeans and help him till and plow the fields. Soon, he would have to get ready for next year's planting.

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