Ask Craig Ganshorn how his corn crop is faring and he winces before replying. "Basically, it's burnt up," he says.
Ganshorn, 62, who has farmed 500 acres of corn and soybeans here since 1976, is confronting the grim realities of a drought that he says is worse "by far" than the one in 1988 that's remembered as among the worst in U.S. history.
Ganshorn's farm is in Kosciusko County, which is in extreme drought. He figures he won't get much return on his corn crop but hopes his soybeans, which are hardier and pollinate later than corn, will survive.
He's already calculated what this hot, dry summer means to his bottom line. "It just cancels any idea" of buying a newer used combine to replace his rickety old one, he says, and "there will be no trip to Colorado this year."
Searing temperatures and below-normal rainfall across a broad swath of the USA have created a drought that is killing crops and drying up streams. More than 1,000 counties have been declared natural disaster areas, giving farmers access to low-interest loans. Mississippi River water levels in some areas are nearing record lows. The conditions have prompted water-use restrictions in Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere, increased risk of wildfires and a marketplace domino effect that could mean more expensive groceries.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last week dropped the estimated average corn yield by 12%. That means higher prices for corn, which forces livestock producers to liquidate herds because feed is too expensive. That, in turn, could mean higher prices for meat and dairy products next year because there will be fewer cattle, hogs and cows.
Food prices already are ticking upward. The Labor Department said Tuesday that food costs rose 0.2% in June from a month earlier and are up 2.7% from June 2011.
The culprit is a weather pattern that produced dry conditions in the middle of the country starting last fall, says Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center. Those conditions were exacerbated by a winter that was warmer and drier than normal, he says.
"Currently, almost 61% of the country (not including Alaska and Hawaii) is in drought, compared to 29% a year ago," Fuchs says. "Even though it is part of the natural variability of climate, this is a rare event." About 78% of the country's corn-growing regions are in drought, he says.
The Palmer Drought Severity Indexsays this drought covers the largest percentage of the contiguous USA since December 1956.
There isn't much good news in long-term weather forecasts. "Over the next several weeks to even the next month or so, we're not really anticipating any changes to the pattern," Fuchs says.
Crops are withering
In the Clunette area, some of the drought's effects are obvious. Corn stalks are 4 or 5 feet high, about half what they should be at this point in the summer, and nobody has to mow their lawn anymore. Grass is brown and dead, and farmers are conserving water for irrigating their fields — though even some watered corn is struggling.
The drought's effects are causing alarm across the Midwest:
•The Arkansas River near Syracuse, Kan., last week had less than 1 cubic foot per second of water flowing in it. The historical mean flow: 394 cubic feet per second. The flow was the lowest recorded for this time of year since records began in 1902, says Brian Loving, a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist in Lawrence, Kan.