It was the summer of the Great Drought, the worst dry spell since Dust Bowl days; the ground baked, crops sagged and hopes withered under the blistering sun. With autumn’s arrival, many farmers face a bitter harvest, wondering if they have produced enough to keep them on the land another year. For a few fortunate farms where rain has fallen, it will be a bountiful harvest, a time to celebrate one of the best years ever. Side-by-side stories look at two counties in Iowa at harvest time: Carroll, blessed by rain, and Washington, cursed by drought.
In the waning days of the searing summer, the Hundling family journeyed to a nearby farm festival, hauling 10-foot corn stalks that hung out the back of their pickup truck. They left with two blue ribbons.
It’s been that kind of year.
While farmers across the Midwest have cursed Mother Nature for delivering a devastating drought, the Hundlings sing sweet praises to her--their new Lady Luck.
“We’re really blessed to get what we got here,” said Shelley Hundling, who farms with her husband, David, and their two children amid the rolling hills outside this rural hamlet.
What they got was rain--plenty of it. In a year when the soil was sucked dry, crops collapsed and farmers in much of the nation’s Heartland cursed the blue skies overhead, Carroll County has seen an embarrassment of riches.
“How would I describe it? Extremely fortunate that we’ve got the rainfall,” said Dennis Molitor, county extension adviser. “Farmers are realizing it’s just a stroke of luck they’ve got it here. It’s kind of an oasis in the Midwest.”
“On a scale of 10, it’ll be an 8 or 9,” Breda farmer Roger Nieland said in describing the coming harvest.
The county recorded 21.05 inches of rain from April through August--slightly above the normal 19.5 inches in the same period. Though a few dry pockets can be found, Molitor said 80% of Carroll County is in good shape.
For farmers in this pocket of west-central Iowa, it will be a bountiful harvest. “They’ve got the best of both worlds,” Molitor said. “They’ve got an excellent crop and excellent prices. Very rarely does that occur.”
Corn, for example, he said, has increased to $2.62 a bushel from $1.42 a bushel a year ago; soybeans are about $8 a bushel, compared to $4.96 a bushel a year ago. If a farmer produces 150 bushels of corn an acre, he said, it could mean an additional $174 per acre.
“We’re reaping the benefits,” Molitor said, “and other farmers are suffering the consequences.”
Farm Finances Improve
Farming prospects in general have improved in recent years after the worst financial crunch in agriculture since the Depression. In 1987, net cash farm income--the yearly amount farmers have available to spend--was estimated by the government at a record $57.1 billion.
The Agriculture Department is forecasting that 1988 net cash income could reach $55 billion to $60 billion.
When it comes to Iowa, experts say it is too early to determine the impact of the drought on the state economy, but early signs are encouraging. Experts say August sales tax revenues were 10.5% higher than in the same period in 1987. But last August had two more working days than the same month in 1987.
And though much of Carroll County, made briefly famous in 1959 when Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev paid a visit, is a picture of prosperity with lush green fields and rich black soil, not many farmers are boasting about it.
“It’s almost kind of embarrassing,” said Paul De Shaw, a broker who also farms and expects his yields to be as good as 1987’s bumper crop.
Has Mixed Emotions
“You feel guilty about saying how good the crop looks,” said Hundling’s brother and farming partner, Charles. “It’s nothing you did. You feel you can’t be happy . . . even though you’re happy.”
But merchants in Carroll, the county seat, are relieved.
“When the weather is bad, farmers may have the same amount of money but may not be as willing to let go of it,” said C. J. Niles, executive vice president of the Carroll Chamber of Commerce. “When it’s good, business is good.”
Carroll is also luckier than many other rural towns, business leaders say, because it has an industrial base and isn’t totally dependent on the farm economy. Its location in the center of western Iowa attracts thousands of shoppers from scores of nearby towns.
Today, there is plenty of reason for optimism here. Land values, Molitor said, are up 24% in the last two years and county yields, on the average, should match those of last year: 115 bushels of corn an acre; 38 bushels for soybeans. The county also is a big hog producer.
Hundling also predicts a harvest that should equal last year’s, when he reaped as much as 150 bushels of corn an acre.
“My dad said it’ll be your best or one of your best ever,” the lanky, soft-spoken farmer said modestly. “You trust the old-timers.”
Iowa farm country has long been good to the Hundlings. They live in the home that belonged to Hundling’s great-grandfather, a 19th-Century Presbyterian minister who published and printed a German language newspaper from a building behind his house.
Hundling followed in the footsteps of his grandfather and father in tilling the soil outside this tiny town of 450. Even in the darkest Dust Bowl days, the family always had a harvest.
Despite that record, Hundling plays down his repeated good fortune.
Molitor said that’s typical for a farmer.
“Farmers are always extremely reluctant to admit success or prosperity,” he said. “They feel they’re going to be exploited. . . . It’s just a very shrewd business decision.”
And this season wasn’t trouble-free: A May hail storm ripped across the farm and forced Hundling to replant nearly 100 acres. “We’ve paid a price this year, too, in lost soil and lost time,” he said, almost defensively.
But the rains came, they fell steadily, and no one dared grumble. One 5-inch rain fell in July.
Rain Comes at Right Time
“We woke up the morning of July 17th, we were walking on air,” Hundling said. “It was relief. . . . It was kind of a holiday. . . . With corn, you’ve got to have the rain at pollination time. It was there right when you needed it.”
His crop shows it. The soil is smooth, and the golden corn, with fat kernels, ears touching one another, towers well above the 6-foot-tall Hundling.
In August, the Hundlings proudly displayed three giant stalks at a small farm festival in Wall Lake. Their two children won two contests--the best corn and the tallest--and walked off with blue ribbons, no surprise to their father.
“When we brought them in,” he said, “people just knew we were going to win.”