For Minn. corn farmers, a patchwork of lean vs. plentyby Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
LeROY, Minn. — About a mile north of the Minnesota-Iowa border, the corn at Johnson Farms is dying.
"You hear the crispiness of it?" asked LeRoy Johnson. "It shouldn't be that crispy."
As Johnson, 50, walks through a brittle cornfield on his 5,000-acre farm, he said the stalks should be at least 7 feet tall by now. But they're barely 3 feet off the ground -- dry, brown and wilted.
Some have ears of corn on them, but they're deformed stubs that never stood a chance, victims of the drought that continues to cripple corn fields across much of the Midwest.
In many parts of Minnesota, the situation is less grim.
While there are some dry spots around the state, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the state's farmers will produce slightly more corn this year than last year.
Because of different weather patterns, some farmers will be blessed with a relative plenty. Heavy rains in some parts of Minnesota have helped famers salvage their crop during the worst national drought in half a century.
About 60 miles northeast of LeRoy in Plainview, Minn., Michael Zabel expects to reap record yields on his farm.
Johnson likely won't be. Parts of his farm are starved for water.
"In this area of the field, we'll see the yield monitor go to zero," he said of the crop expected in one part of his farm. "You might have a kernel come in, but it won't be enough to register in the combine."
Throughout southern and western Minnesota, farmers like Johnson have a patchwork of dry, devastated cornfields tucked between healthier ones.
"It still takes rain to make grain, and we just have not had it," he said. "I mean, we've been so close. We had some farms to the east that have gotten rain, to the west have gotten rain. We're just in an area [where] it's been very frustrating to watch it on the weather map -- to watch it go around you."
Typically, Johnson's farm might produce 180 bushels of corn per acre. But he said those predictions are nearly impossible to make this year because of the huge variation of crop inventory on his land.
"It's going to be a percentage game," he said. "How much of the field is going to be zero, and how much is going to be 150, and how much is going to be in the midrange of 80 to 100? It's really tough to say."
Still, Johnson doesn't expect a huge financial loss. Like most farmers, he has crop insurance, which he anticipates using for the first time in nearly 30 years of farming.
"I know some areas around here, north of here, [where] they have some bang-up crops," he said. "I'm sure they're going to have 200-plus bushel corn because they've gotten the heat, they've gotten the moisture. They've hit home runs. And I think we might be getting on base, and that might be as much as we stand here."
It's a vastly different story in Plainview, a small town north of Rochester where Zabel is a third-generation farmer who grows corn, soybeans, alfalfa, barley and peas.
On his 900-acre farm, the corn soars 12 feet. On a recent afternoon, the stalks were a deep green as Zabel peeled back a corn husk to reveal a bright yellow ear.
"We're very blessed to have extremely nice looking crops," said Zabel, 45. "If you can imagine the best-looking corn, it looks very nice in comparison to so many fields that I've seen not too far from here."
With the drought deteriorating crops across the country, corn prices have jumped nearly 40 percent in the last two months, from about $5.50 a bushel to more than $8 a bushel.
Zabel expects his farm will produce 180 bushels an acre this year. If prices stay high, he could see record profits. It's not lost on him that the weather has been just as unkind to others.
"We've just been fortunate in our area here to have had some or enough timely rains where things actually look good," he said. "You feel bad for so many that are suffering. It could easily be us."
Despite the good weather, Zabel is cautious. His fields may not be parched, but he said the weather might still affect his crop. So he's delaying any commitments to sell any more corn.
"There's a lot of season left," he said. "Last year, for example, our yields on some particular varieties could have easily been 10 to 20 bushels more, but we had some late-season winds that shook the plants and knocked a lot of the ears off."
- Morning Edition, 08/13/2012, 6:50 a.m.