More than half the U.S. is suffering from drought

Midwest corn belt hit by lack of rain and sky-high temps

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TOLEDO, Ohio -- Mark Drewes has never seen it drier in Henry County.

The 51-year-old farmer from Custar, Ohio, sows corn in Wood, Putnam, Henry and Hancock counties in northwest Ohio. Some of his fields are doing better than others, but it's all dry.

"[Conditions] are pretty tough," he said. "We've been below normal rainfall for seven months straight now, and it's reached the point of being almost beyond critical. The crop has irreversible damage."

Two months of hot, arid conditions have devastated fields across much of the United States, leaving many farmers watching both their fields and their profits dry up.

Climatologists say this summer's drought, now covering more than half the United States, is the most widespread since 1956.

And it's likely to get worse.

"I think we're still developing, we're intensifying and spreading," climatologist Brian Fuchs said. "Until we kind of see a peak in it and start seeing some improvement, it's tough to say where this one will rank. It has the potential of being a very bad drought and the drought of memory for many people."

Mr. Fuchs, who works at the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb., said forecasters see the hot, dry conditions continuing for the next several months.

Record-setting, triple-digit temperatures have already been seen across the country. The National Weather Service counted 86 records last month, including 118 degrees in Norton, Kan., on June 28. Other record highs included 111 degrees in Yuma, Colo., 106 degrees in St. Louis, and 105 in Logan, W. Va.

July has brought no relief. Toledo has seen three 100-degree days this month. Evansville, Ind., has had nine days over 100 degrees, including 107 on July 5. Western Pennsylvania isn't setting records, but has had below-normal precipitation this summer and 10 days of 90-plus temperatures so far this month.

Between that extreme heat and the lack of rain, crop conditions are dismal across much of the corn belt.

Earlier this month, the USDA cut its U.S. corn yield projection 12 percent to 146 bushels per acre. That works out to total reduction of 1.8 billion bushels, and many experts expect projections to be cut again as crop conditions continue to deteriorate.

In its most recent crop progress report, the USDA said 72 percent of the corn crop in Missouri and 71 percent of the crop in Indiana was poor to very poor. Indiana ranked fifth in the nation in corn production last year.

Michigan had 56 percent ranked poor or very poor, while Ohio had 47 percent ranked poor or very poor. Pennsylvania's crop is faring considerably better, at just 16 percent poor or very poor, but the state ranks much lower in annual corn production.

Less grain means higher prices for feed lots, dairy operations and producers of processed food.

Eventually, that's going to show up in the supermarket -- though it won't be immediate and may be to a lesser extent than some expect. "People need to understand there's so many other factors that drive the prices we see at the supermarket," said Ricky Volpe, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There's labor, overhead, advertising, transportation -- and a lot of these factors are even more important in the restaurant industry."

Out of every dollar consumers spend on food, only about 14 cents goes back to the farm.

"It's not nothing, it's not insignificant, but it's smaller than lot of people might think," Mr. Volpe said.

Still, as the drought drags on, prices are likely to go up for meats, eggs, dairy products, vegetable oils and processed foods that include corn or other grains.

Economists say they can't predict the exact effect until they know how much of this year's corn crop -- previously expected to be the largest on record -- is lost.

"It's all anecdotal at this point and farmers tend to be pretty conservative," said Tadd Nicholson, executive director of the Ohio Corn and Wheat Growers Association. "There's no doubt it's going to be a down year, but the degree ... won't really be answered until we get into the field for the harvest."

Most economists said the first price jumps consumers should expect to see will be in poultry, pork and dairy products. Beef prices will rise later, followed by packaged items such as cereals, flour and processed food that include corn-based sweeteners.

Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, said there's such a low value of corn in many of those processed foods that consumers shouldn't see large price increases. For example, Mr. Hurt said corn makes up only about 5 percent of the total cost of a $3 box of corn flakes. If corn doubled in price, that would raise the consumer cost by only about 15 cents a box, he said.

The increases are likely to be most noticeable in meats. Corn represents about 95 percent of the feed grains in the United States, and with most pasture fields dry as well, there aren't a lot of other options.

"Essentially anybody with animals has got a problem here," said James Dunn, an agricultural economist at Penn State University.

Beef prices were already higher than usual. Ongoing high feed prices and last year's extreme drought in the Southwest led to a significant thinning of herds and breeding stock. Prices rose 10 percent last year and have been creeping up this year as well -- completely unrelated to the current drought.

Because it takes time to replenish herds, Mr. Hurt expects to see record-high retail prices being set for quite some time.

"We're now at least 2016 before we can begin to talk about getting more beef to consumers and hopefully bringing prices down or at least moderating them. That's a long horizon," he said. "The beef is where the impacts of this drought will drag out the longest."

Mr. Drewes, the Wood County farmer, said he sells about one-third of his corn to a dairy operation, a third to ethanol production and the final third to the southeast United States for feed. He estimates the drought will decrease his yield 45 to 50 percent.

The prices farmers get for their corn will rise as the supply falls, but Mr. Drewes said higher prices on what he does sell won't offset what he lost.

"The offset prices versus yields, it's not enough to cover our losses. It's a bad scenario for everybody. When our yields are affected, it's tough on all our end users and ourselves," he said. "The main thing is, we will have enough corn in this country to satisfy all needs from our ethanol industry to our livestock industry."

To this point, eastern states including Pennsylvania have escaped much of the drought. However, forecasters say as the drought expands eastward, they too will suffer.

"These areas that have been on the fringe, hopefully can get though their growing seasons, but it does look like drought is going to spread in the next several months," Mr. Fuchs said.

The National Weather Service is forecasting above-normal temperatures for two-thirds of the country through October, including Ohio and neighboring states.


The Block News Alliance consists of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio. Tyrel Linkhorn is a reporter for The Blade.


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