MANHATTAN, ILL. — FARMERS in the Midwest are preparing for a spring planting that is more crucial to the pocketbooks of United States consumers than any crop in more than a decade.
Stockpiles of corn and other crops have shrunk to a level not seen for more than 15 years, largely because last year's record flooding severely curtailed yields. If farmers reap a meager harvest again this year, the US - the world's largest exporter of grain - might have to import corn and other crops next year, agricultural experts say.
Thousands of farmers across the Mississippi flood plain are relying on this year's crop to help them recover from billions of dollars lost in flood damage. John and Sherri Kiefner, farmers in Manhattan, Ill., have bet a good portion of their assets on a bumper harvest. They are depending on an abundant yield to help them pay for their unfinished farmhouse. But like the Kiefners, just about every American has a stake in the crop of 1994.
Prices of corn and other major crops such as wheat, soybeans, and sorghum have jumped more than 15 percent compared with last year's levels. Even with a normal harvest this year, the average price of groceries will rise at least 3.3 percent, according to economists' estimates. The figure exceeds slightly the general 3 percent projected inflation rate for 1994.
In an effort to ensure an abundant harvest, the US Department of Agriculture is allowing farmers involved in its price support program to cultivate land that usually must stand idle. Typically, farmers who sign on with a government program are guaranteed set prices; in return, they agree to idle some land to reduce the supply of the crop.
Farmers will likely till corn on at least 79 million acres this year, according to Terry Francl, senior economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation in Park Ridge, Ill. This is 7.2 percent more land than was farmed for corn last year.
So far, the prospects for a bumper harvest are good, agricultural experts say. ``Farmers will come bouncing back this year,'' says American Farm Bureau Federation spokesman Gene Malone. The comparatively high crop prices should bring farmers out in full force, he says. A bushel of central Illinois corn, for example, is currently selling for $2.77, or 29 percent more than a year ago.
Meteorologists predict that most farmers will probably not face severe rain and floods, at least until summer. Snow has been melting gradually since mid-February, forestalling a sudden rush of water. And normal or scant rainfall almost always follows an excessively wet year, says Jon Davis, a meteorologist at Smith Barney Shearson Inc. in Chicago.
Most importantly, US farms are no longer threatened by the phenomena known as El Nino, in which water evaporates from unusually warm areas of the Pacific Ocean and drifts with prevailing winds to the US, Mr. Davis says.
Still, commodities traders are closely watching the sky because crop prices are unusually high, stockpiles are low, and weather is so variable. The tight supply and uncertainties will make for a tumultuous market, analysts say.
THE stockpile of corn, the nation's No. 1 crop, will shrink to 816 million bushels by the end of the crop year Aug. 31, according to government estimates. This represents just 10.5 percent of the total 7.8 billion bushels of corn that will likely be used during this period, or the smallest ratio since 1976, Mr. Francl says. ``It certainly doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that because of the low stocks going into this year, the markets will be extremely volatile,'' Davis says.
The farmhouse the Kiefners are building seems to symbolize how this season, like every spring, many farmers are seizing on the potential benefits of the market and the weather - despite the risks. A windbreak of 3-feet-tall pine saplings is too short to shield the two-story house Mr. Kiefner began constructing last fall on his 80-acre parcel of land. So a stiff wind beats against its bare, partially finished walls.
Kiefner, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat, and hay, says he plans to put siding on the house soon and build a chimney. He says he hopes to move his wife, son, and daughter into the new home by July. But scraping together more than $100,000 needed to complete the house has strained the family finances. Consequently, Kiefner is hoping a combination of high crop prices, hard work, and good weather will bring good fortune this year. Along with his own land, he sharecrops 250 acres owned by his father and also tills 658 other acres of rented farmland.
The Kiefners say it is their turn for the fickle weather to smile on their fields. During the 1991 growing season, rain clouds passed by their part of northeast Illinois, leaving it a parched pocket of dust. The Kiefners brought in just one-half of their usual yield. At the same time, abundant harvests elsewhere kept crop prices low. ``Last year, we just decided that come what may, we're going to build this house,'' Mrs. Kiefner says.