INDIANAPOLIS — Weeks of record rainfalls drenched Don Lamb’s cornfields this summer, drowning some plants and leaving others yellowed, 2 feet tall and capable of producing little, if any, grain.
The 48-year-old central Indiana farmer can’t recall anything like the deluges he’s seen from late May on this summer; the latest was a 4-inch downpour a week ago. Neither can his father, who’s been farming for 50 years.
“I always try to stay optimistic about crops, but this is a year where it’s been really tough to be optimistic,” said Lamb, who began farming in 1989 near Lebanon, Indiana.
It’s a scene playing out in Illinois and Indiana, both of which set rainfall records for June, and four other key farm states. Climatologists are assessing what brought on the repeated precipitation, keeping corn and soybean fields from drying out and setting the stage for big crop losses in several states just a year after record harvests. Those losses and their impact on crop prices are expected to be offset by bountiful harvests in the western cornbelt states of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas.
The Midwestern Regional Climate Center in Champaign, Illinois, is looking into the causes of the rain-sodden summer — Illinois saw twice the normal amount of rain for the month of June alone — including whether the largest El Nino system in a decade or climate change played a role.
A stationary front that stalled over the region in late spring funneled in the parade of drenching low-pressure systems that swept the region throughout June and into July, said Bryan Peake, one of the center’s climatologists.
“Some stations were getting three or four inches in a day, and some were all the way up to six or seven inches in extreme cases, just really astonishing amounts,” he said.
East-central Illinois farmer Mark Henrichs isn’t sure whether the crippling rains, which came three years after a devastating drought, might be tied to changes climate scientists have predicted global warming might bring. But the 58-year-old knows they were highly unusual.
“When you shatter rainfall records that have been existed for over 100 years, it does make you wonder … If you’re shattering rainfall records that are that old, you have to be experiencing atrocious damage. That goes hand in hand,” said Henrichs, who has farmed for 40 years near Chatsworth, Illinois.
About half of his corn crop is now in “horrible” condition and the other half is average after 16 inches of rain in June and close to a foot in July, he said. Last year, he averaged 240 bushels of corn per acre; this year, he expects 165 bushels per acre.
Some corn and soybean plants were drowned, others were stunted with unhealthy roots while the rains washed away soil nutrients. Soybeans can still recover yields if conditions improve during the remainder of the growing season, but corn plants can rebound little this late in the season.
Indiana has seen the worst of it, said Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. A quarter of its corn crop is listed as “poor” or “very poor” and Hurt predicts $500 million in corn and soybean crop losses. This week, Gov. Mike Pence asked U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for a disaster declaration for 53 of Indiana’s 92 counties because of crop damage and other flooding-related losses.
Elsewhere, “poor” or “very poor” corn crop conditions are being seen in a fifth of Ohio’s crop, 18 percent in Missouri, 15 percent in Illinois and about one-tenth in Kansas and Michigan.
The first clear assessment of the extent of the Midwest crop losses will come Aug. 12, when the USDA releases its first harvest estimates. But Hurt expects it won’t be October until a truly accurate estimate emerges because of the many remaining variables, including warmer, drier weather in the forecast for August.
There’s no unscathed cropland in central Indiana’s Boone County, a fact worsened by farmers’ inability to boost crops with fertilizer, said Curt Emanuel, an agricultural educator for the Purdue Extension. Some farmers have taken the rare step of using crop-dusters to apply fertilizer on cornfields.
At this point, Emanuel said, farmers have competing wants: drier weather but weekly rainfall, because some corn didn’t develop deep root systems — a problem should it get hot and really dry.
“If it dries out, even for a few days, all of a sudden we could have drought stresses on those plants,” he said. “It’s just that kind of year.”