Can farmers salvage a soaked planting season?
Ebbing water, good weather brighten outlook in Midwest, but numerous obstacles remain.
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Jim Legg of Bridgeport, in southern Illinois, faces a far more difficult situation. He had just finished planting earlier this month when the Embarrass River overflowed and inundated every one of his 750 acres. The low ground behind his house lay under 10 to 12 feet of water. He had seen floods before, but never so extensive. The river returned to its banks on Wednesday, and Mr. Legg planted 100 acres of soybeans on the higher ground on Friday. If there was any consolation in his misfortune, it was that the flooding came early enough for him to replant.Skip to next paragraph
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"You have to be optimistic, or you wouldn't farm," he says.
Much of the damage across the region was inflicted less by flooding than simply by heavy and frequent rains. Ron Gray, a farmer in Claremont, Ill., was able to plant only about half his 1,500 acres before rain forced him from his fields this spring. He says he will take insurance losses on what he couldn't plant.
"It's a business decision," he says. Planting now might be possible, but the risk of a poor crop is rising with each passing day.
"Good luck has not followed me to here, and to assume I'm going to be lucky from here on is not a good bet," he says.
For Mr. Gray, as for other farmers, the prospect of a poor crop is especially bitter this year because record commodity prices had raised hopes of a highly profitable season. "At this point, the year we could have hoped for is gone," he says.
Farmers across central Iowa, where shallow depressions known as prairie potholes are scattered across the landscape, suffered some of the most widespread damage in the region. Gary Woodley, who farms near the town of Clarion, struggled to plant almost all his crop of corn and soybeans. Then the rains destroyed a fifth of his crop. Water filled the depressions, eroded hillsides, and buried parts of his fields in silt. At the end of last week Mr. Woodley said he was still hoping to replant.
Farmers race against the clock
But time is running out. In a normal year farmers hope to have their corn and soybeans planted by the middle of May so that the crops can mature before the frost. Corn specialist Roger Elmore of Iowa State University in Ames says he spent part of last week running computer programs to figure out whether there was still time to plant corn.
Many farmers say it is already too late to plant corn; most are putting in soybeans, which they can plant until the beginning of June and which are also at record prices.
Even as hopes rise, profound uncertainties remain. If the weather is good this summer, with rain and heat in moderation and at the right times, many farmers say they can still expect a good harvest. But more rain in the next few days, a dry spell at the wrong time, or an early frost could cut their yields dramatically.
The same uncertainty hangs over the commodities markets. Even before the flooding, the Agriculture Department was forecasting tight supplies of corn this fall. Analysts will be looking closely at the long-range weather forecasts released Monday.
"Given we're looking at late-planted crops, it raises concerns for the harvest," says Chad Hart, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University. "How will the weather cooperate? Will we get a hard frost before we're able to harvest the crop in the fall?"
In DeWitt, Iowa, the Bowmans, like many other farmers, are hopeful.
"There's still a lot of potential out here," Chris Bowman says. "It's been pretty challenging for everybody. It was pretty amazing, though, when the weather was good, how fast the crop went in."