Weather takes a toll on midwest farms

posted in: Food, News | 3

I usually shy away from pessimism, but if you think food prices are high now, wait until the harvest in 2008. Flooding caused by unrelenting rain has been hard on Iowa’s corn and soy fields – and the summer is just beginning.
After all this rain, late summer droughts are predicted (just when the grain and beans will be maturing). A lot of farmers planted late or still haven’t planted. By the time the corn is silking, corn rootworm beetles will be ready to eat the silks, decreasing pollination and thus yield (in good years, silking is already in progress when rootworm reaches adulthood). The crops could be hit by toxin-producing fungus, rendering the grain poisonous even for feed (perhaps it could still be used for biofuels?).
This is a big problem for me personally, since I have 7000 corn seeds that still need to be hand planted. It was too cold and now it’s too wet. We’re in the process of making contingency plans for the growing season, knowing that we’ll have a lot of pests to deal with. If I loose these plants, my experiments could be set back multiple years. Other graduate students here haven’t been able to get to their fields to take measurements or samples for a variety of experiments.
The complaints of graduate students are small compared to those of farmers. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to watch your seedlings drown. According to ISU Extension, corn seedlings may withstand two to 4 days of submergence, but plants that survive will be at increased risk for disease and pests. Yields of stressed plants may be lower without additional nitrogen. So, even if their plants make it, they’ll have to spend more on pesticide and fertilizer than expected (plus fuel and time). I suppose this is what crop insurance and subsides are for.
The Iowa Farmer Today CropWatch Blog has some advice for farmers considering a replant, which is typically soy over a failed corn planting. They have some other information that I hadn’t even thought of. In addition to rain, we got a lot of hail. It pummels young plants, which are then more susceptible to disease and pests. Saturated soils mean not enough air in the soil for proper root growth, weeds are growing furiously in conditions that slow crop growth, and black cutworms have already been reported in several places.
Then, there are tornadoes. The devastation in Parkersburg, Iowa has been covered in national news, but they forgot one detail – the fields. David Correll, graduate student in Sustainable Agriculture at ISU, writes:

As you know, at 5pm on Sunday, 25 June, an EF-5 tornado struck Parkersburg, Iowa, killing eight and injuring 50. The storm destroyed homes, businesses, City Hall, municipal sewer and water lines and even the local high school in this little town of only 1,800 people.

In addition to this carnage, surrounding farms have been littered with debris. Besides the regular flotsam and jetsam of modern American life, farmers have found entire vehicles and utility poles strewn across corn and soybean fields. This super-natural littering comes at an especially inopportune time in agriculture. Within weeks, corn plants are expected to poke high enough through the dirt to cover this debris in a canopy of green. This hidden wreckage will make fields inaccessible for later field work and harvesting, thus prolonging the Parkersburg tragedy into fall, when anxious growers may have to watch their crop whither for fear of entering their own mine-strewn acres.

I can’t beleive how oblivious I was to farming. Prior to moving to Iowa in 2006, I had only driven past farms – orange groves in Florida, Asian pear groves in Korea, some grains in Maryland and Pennsylvania. I had this idyllic vision of the gentle life of a farmer. What a fool I was.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!