Farmers back off from the brink of disaster. Drought damage seems no worse, and in some cases, less severe than expected

With a flourish, farmer Mike Yoder pulls out two large, full ears of corn from his pickup truck. Four months ago his corn was growing on brown stalks. Two consultants in the area predicted the drought had already killed the crop. But now, Mr. Yoder is in the middle of harvesting a reduced but respectable crop.

So is Brian Rippy.

``Believe it or not, we got a crop,'' says the delighted corn and soybean farmer from Ridgeville, Ind.

This summer, Midwest farmers were hit by one of the worst and most extensive droughts of the last 50 years. Yet, as they wind up this year's harvest, many of these same farmers are finding a pleasant surprise. Drought damage is turning out to be no worse - and in some cases even less severe - than originally predicted.

``It's certainly not going to be a good year on balance, but its not going to be a disaster,'' sums up Gary Pursifull of the Indiana Farm Bureau.

Such findings are becoming common throughout the Midwest.

Contrary to expectations, for example, the drought did not force cattlemen to sell off huge numbers of their livestock. Many of them either bought feed to replace their shriveled hay crop or moved their animals to greener pastureland.

Nebraska grain farmers, meanwhile, are reporting an excellent year. The drought had less impact on them because much of their land is irrigated.

Of course, the drought has hit hard in pockets of the Midwest.

In northwest Missouri, the dryness has been the latest weather disaster in a string of poor crop years. Combined with the financial squeeze of the mid-1980s, the drought has weakened the already fragile agricultural economy. Yet, even in Missouri, farmers and state officials argue that the overall picture is not terribly negative.

Indiana was one of the states hit hardest by the dryness. Corn yields this year are down a third from the five-year state average, according to Ralph Gann, Indiana state statistician for the US Department of Agriculture. Soybean yields are down about a fifth.

Those are the biggest declines since the last big drought in 1983, but earlier predictions this year were even bleaker than what actually occurred, he adds. ``Rains in mid-July literally saved the corn crop.''

``We had corn come back that, like I said, I thought it was gone,'' says Yoder of Middlebury. ``This is far better than anybody expected.''

The drought raised grain prices for farmers like Yoder who had grain to sell. With a diversified operation that includes a small dairy herd and irrigation on some of this land, Yoder is actually having an excellent year.

This is the first time in eight years, he says, that he has been able to reduce his debts to a point where his family's financial picture is ``comfortable.''

But not everyone is doing so well here. Yoder says that some farms just south of his are harvesting a disastrous five bushel-to-the-acre corn crop. The Indiana average is 119.

Mr. Rippy calls 1988 mildly bad, but ``we have had four good years in a row.'' Thus, most farmers here have the financial resources to withstand a one-year reversal.

One concern among farmers is that this year's drought will be repeated next year. As of Oct. 1, three-quarters of Indiana farmland was rated short of subsoil moisture, says Mr. Gann. ``We don't have the [moisture] reserve, but we have now until next March to get that reserve up.''

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