Midwest’s Grim Harvest: Combine Goes Length of Football Field, Finds No Corn

Times Staff Writer

Autumn is delivering the grim harvest that farmer Don Engles forecast last July.

In mid-summer the Illinois farmer “kissed my corn goodby.” Now his combine moves across the dusty, drought-dried rows of yellow corn stalks reaping mid-summer’s prophesy. Land that last year produced 180 to 185 bushels of corn an acre is yielding as few as 29 bushels an acre and rarely more than 65 bushels this year.

“You can drive the length of a football field and not see an ear of corn go into the (combine),” said Engles. “Sometimes the fuel tank goes empty before the (combine’s) grain bin gets full. It really makes you feel humble.”

As the Heartland’s annual harvest of corn and soybeans reaches the midway point this week, Midwest farmers like Engles are at last learning the magnitude of the drought--and worrying about the effect it will have on next spring’s planting season.


Applying for Assistance

This is also the week when farmers who have been hurt by the drought began applying for federal assistance under the $3.9-billion disaster program that Congress approved in August. The aid will help those most seriously affected by the year’s extraordinary weather and farmers whose drought-weakened corn is infected with aflatoxin, a cancer-causing poison produced by mold that thrives in dry weather and makes some corn unsuitable for human or animal feed.

As one season ends and farmers begin to plan for next spring, rain is a paramount concern.

When measured in terms of rain shortfall, the 1988 drought now ranks as “the worst on record for principal agricultural regions,” according to a report prepared for President Reagan. During the May-to-July growing season, record low precipitation hurt crops in Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Wisconsin and Wyoming. It was the second worst year on record for rainfall in five other major agricultural states--Georgia, North Dakota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio.


In Illinois, one of the nation’s most productive corn growing states in normal times, meteorologists are reporting shortages of up to a foot of rain since January. And a winter of heavy snow cannot make up for that deficiency.

‘Need Substantial Rains’

“Even if Illinois gets twice the normal snowfall it will not be sufficient,” said Wayne M. Wendland, the state’s climatologist. “We’re going to have to wait through the whole winter for March and April showers and thunderstorms. And then we’ll need pretty substantial rains.

“One of the concerns for next year is the need for spring showers to continue into the summer. If they don’t, there is not going to be a reserve of soil moisture for deep (crop) roots to tap,” said Wendland. “And the rainfall hasn’t turned around yet.”

The dry weather--coupled with extreme, prolonged heat throughout much of the Midwest and Southeast--is being blamed for an estimated 23% drop in soybean production this year and a nearly 40% drop in the corn harvest. The drought wiped out crops valued at an estimated $16 billion, the federal government’s inter-agency task force on drought reports.

Farmers are also concerned about the damage the drought did to the hybrid corn seed crop. “The system will be strained,” said David R. Lambert, director of governmental relations for the American Seed Trade Assn. “Hybrid corn seed production was down by 48%. We don’t anticipate a real crisis, but the system will be strained.”

More Corn to Be Planted

To compensate, seed companies raced to grow hybrid corn seed this winter in Florida, Texas and in Central and South America. A sharp increase in the number of acres dedicated to corn next year could make seed supplies even tighter. Currently the estimate is that between 75 million and 78 million acres will be planted next year, up by about 10 million acres over this year.


Supplies of other grain seeds are likely to be sufficient.

The drought may leave other marks on the landscape of American agriculture. In areas where corn and soybeans have been traditional crops for decades, farmers are reportedly planting winter wheat and planning to plant oats in the spring.

Planting wheat allows farmers to raise two annual crops on some land because there is time to plant soybeans after the wheat is harvested in the spring. Oats, a commodity once widely grown in the United States, has been in short supply in recent years, forcing some grain companies to import the commodity.

Plants Winter Wheat

Engles, who farms 560 acres in Mendota, Ill., planted 130 acres of winter wheat this year--only the second time in three decades of farming that he has planted the crop.

As for the drought?

“That’s life,” said the 48-year-old farmer. “It’s one of those 50-year droughts, and we got to learn to live with it.”