WASHINGTON — ALTHOUGH Midwest floods have hit agriculture hardest of all sectors, the nation's overall food supply will not be greatly impacted.
Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy said last week that despite the inundation of 7.8 million acres of farmland and $2.5 billion in lost corn and soybeans, Mr. Espy promised consumers there would be no price crunches at the produce market.
"The vagaries of nature are not going to result in a significantly higher food bill," he said.
From a macroeconomic standpoint, experts agree with Espy and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report. Dan Otto, an economist at Iowa State University predicts that as much as half of the 22 percent loss in corn production will be made up for by crops stored from last year's record harvest.
But for small farm communities entirely dependent on agriculture, 1993's losses promise to have more serious implications:
* Small Kansas farmers "have suffered ... substantial losses," says Bill Edwards, at the Kansas Farm Bureau. "It's going to be hard for them to go back."
* More than 30 percent of Missouri farmland has been affected by the high water levels and a possible early frost "would make 1993 a literal wipeout," says Charles Kruse, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.
* In Iowa, corn and soybean crops were planted late this year. Now, the plants are about a month behind, says Richard Vohs, a spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad (R). Rather than the 5- percent loss Iowa has already suffered, the state stands to lose up to 40 percent of its agriculture output if enough hot, dry weather does not arrive by October.
The government report estimated losses assuming "average weather," says Keith Collins, a USDA economist. Average weather places the first frost between Oct. 1 and Oct. 15, Mr. Collins says.
In order for Midwestern farmers to salvage immature plants, the frost would have to hold off until November, Mr. Kruse says. Cold weather is not likely to wait that long, says Elwin Taylor, an agronomist at Iowa State University. In northern states like Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, farmers have not seen a frost later than Oct. 7 in the past 19 years, Mr. Taylor says.
As the US Army Corps of Engineers continues to restrict navigation on the Mississippi, farmers are losing more money. Many farmers managed to harvest winter wheat this year. But gridlock along the Mississippi has reduced the quality of the grain sitting on barges.
Espy has vowed the USDA will put disaster relief checks in growers' hands within two weeks of a request. Yet farmers recall similar promises from the federal government after the 1988 droughts. Many are expecting no more than 50 percent reimbursement, Mr. Edwards says.