Mark Davis slowly pulled the husk from an ear of corn. The farmer stared at the result, a nearly empty corncob with perhaps only a dozen kernels scattered along its’ length.
“There’s not going to be much profit taken in 2012,” he said.
Senator Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) and officials from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) visited Davis’ farm July 30 to discuss how this summer’s devastating drought has hurt Delaware farmers, particularly corn farmers.
Senator Tom Carper and USDA officials observe the impact of drought conditions at one Georgetown farm
Senator Tom Carper and USDA officials observe the impact of drought conditions at one Georgetown farm.
All of Sussex County and the lower third of Kent County are under severe drought conditions according to a USDA drought monitor map. Much of New Castle County is still considered normal, but a small portion of Southern New Castle County and the upper two-thirds of Kent County face moderate drought conditions.
It’s a scene being played out across the nation as much of the South and the entire Southwest suffers from drought conditions. Even the Midwest, normally the country’s breadbasket, is not immune with much of it listed as being under moderate or severe drought condition.
“Well over 60 percent of the U.S. is extremely dry,” according to Michael Scuse, USDA Under Secretary for Foreign and Farm Agricultural Services.
A costly solution
Davis explained that no amount of rainfall now can help the corn crop.
“Corn at this point is done for,” Davis said. “It’s past the point of no return.”
For Davis, there is some good news. Much of his corn crop is irrigated and the difference between the irrigated corn and the “dry land” corn was immediately obvious. Tall and green, the irrigated corn could still yield perhaps 140 bushels per acre.
A few feet away, Davis pulled stunted ears from heat blasted and drought damaged non-irrigated corn. Much of it was only half the height of the neighboring irrigated field. Davis expects the non-irrigated corn to be a total loss. In some cases, farmers won’t even bother to harvest the tiny ears.
But the extra yield from irrigation comes at a very high cost to farmers like Davis. Farmers must pay for the electricity to keep irrigation systems running, often around the clock, a cost that can drive production costs up dramatically.
Taking a risk
For some other crops, the conditions are not so dire. Soybeans, in particular, are more drought resistant and can still be helped by additional rain.
A few miles down the road from Davis’ farm, motorists passed a large field with only a few stunted corn stalks still standing. The farmer had simply chopped down the withered crop and planted soybeans in its place.
It’s a risky move because it means the farmer has to pay the cost of planting two crops in a year. “This is a gambler’s business,” said Carper.
Carper and other officials said additional steps that are being taken to help farmers in Delaware and across the country.
Scuse, the former Delaware Secretary of Agriculture, said one effort to help farmers has involved lowering the interest rate on emergency loans from 3.5 percent to 2.25 percent.
The drought designation process has also been streamlined, allowing Delaware to be designated a drought area much more quickly, meaning farmers can hope for more rapid assistance.
Carper took the opportunity to lobby for one additional change. The current Farm Bill allows federal crop insurance to pay farmers for 75 percent of their losses. The new Farm Bill would increase that to 85 percent.
The Senate has passed the new version of the Farm Bill and Carper chided the House of Representatives for not moving more quickly to approve the measure.
Measuring the impact
The impact of this summer’s drought could be far-reaching in many ways.
Carper said that the poultry industry is facing huge challenges because of the high cost of corn, an enormous part of the cost of growing chickens for Delaware’s multi-billion dollar broiler industry.
On Delmarva, the poultry industry is a $3.2 billion industry. An estimated 1,700 farm families raise nearly 11 million birds every single week, according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture.
Carper said lower feed prices helped the poultry industry to start more strongly this year. But since then, prices have soared. “With this, they are back in the tank,” he said.
Drought in the Midwest could also affect seed corn, which farmers will need to have in order to plant next year’s crop. That could drive up the cost of seed for farmers in Delaware and around the county, said Bob Walls of the Farm Service Agency (FSA).
One bright spot for consumers is that meat prices aren’t expected to rise dramatically, at least not in the short-term. With farmers afraid of soaring prices and continuing drought, some are expected to sell livestock early. The extra livestock going to market could help keep prices low, at least temporarily.
Higher corn prices of perhaps $8 or $9 a bushel seems like good news for farmers. But with drought conditions, many farmers will have little or no crop to sell at that sky-high price.
“That’s a great price, but [it doesn’t help] if you don’t have corn,” said Davis. “Farming is a risky business.”