JIM ROBBINS walks out into a field of broken corn stalks behind his house. "It looks good on top, but it's still too wet," he says, kneeling down and digging. A little more than an inch down, the black earth is so moist it balls up in his hand.
Until the rains stop, spring planting is on hold in northern Illinois - and across much of the corn belt of the United States. Farmers and traders and analysts are casting anxious glances at the sky.
Preplanting jitters are traditional among farmers.
"It seems like every year we are moving up the deadline for planting," says Mr. Robbins. Although rains delayed last year's planting till late in May, farmers still had good yields.
"People are antsy about it. They say it's too wet, it's too cool," says Ralph Gann, Indiana's agricultural statistician. In reality, "it's just too early."
Farmers have an added concern this year. Their net cash income is likely to fall after reaching a record $59 billion last year. "It does not spell doom and disaster," says Terry Francl, economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. "We have had two very good years."
But higher costs and lower crop prices and government subsidies will push income down some $5 billion - or 8 percent, he estimates.
Demand for corn high
Traders and analysts also have good reason to keep a sharp eye on Mother Nature. Surplus stocks of corn and soybeans are so low that there is little cushion against a crop failure, economists say.
Even though US farmers are expected to plant more acres of corn this spring than at any time since 1986, analysts don't expect much of a surplus. Demand for corn is running strong.
The WEFA Group, a forecasting firm in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., estimates corn stocks will dip to some 1.3 billion bushels by September, assuming normal weather. That's only about two months of surplus supply at current levels of consumption - the lowest since 1983.
Soybeans are not as scarce, but farmers plan to plant fewer acres of that crop this spring. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates 57.1 million soybean acres - the lowest number in 15 years. Southern farmers traditionally plant a lot of soybeans, but this year they are rushing to plant cotton instead, which is fetching sky-high prices.
Of the major US crops, only wheat stands in sharp contrast, with surpluses burgeoning and prices tumbling.
Wheat prices are so low that some analysts expect farmers will take advantage of the farm program and not plant spring wheat. By idling those acres, producers still receive 92 percent of their wheat subsidy payments and can plant minor crops that compete with soybeans.
According to the USDA survey, farmers intend to plant 23 percent more sunflower acres than a year ago and 33 percent more flax-seed acres.
Much can change from these preliminary estimates. The USDA released its planting intentions report March 28.
Of the five largest corn-producing states, Illinois is the furthest along. At the end of last week, its farmers had planted 9 percent of their corn acres; Indiana stood at 4 percent; Nebraska, 3 percent; Iowa, 1 percent. All four states were within one percentage point of their five-year average.
Minnesota farmers hadn't planted their corn acreage yet. They had only prepared 5 percent of their corn land as of last week - down from the average of 19 percent.
Rain hampers planting
The major obstacle to planting is too much rain. Iowa, the nation's largest corn-producing state, had the second-wettest March on record and could end up with the third- or fourth-wettest April, according to Harry Hillaker, climatologist of the state's agriculture department.
Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota have also seen increases in subsoil moisture from a year ago. Of the five top corn states, only Nebraska reported a slight deterioration. The state reported Monday that 68 percent of its cropland was short of subsoil moisture.
The next couple of weeks should be wet throughout much of the corn belt, says Peter Leavitt, an agricultural meteorologist at Weather Services Corporation, a private forecast company in Bedford, Mass.
"We are not looking for any extended periods of dry weather," he says.
Farmers have lots of time to complete planting.
"We are not even close to the point where you would consider late planting to be a problem," says Stewart Ramsey, an agricultural economist with WEFA Group.
Planting would have to be delayed another month before analysts say they would consider it a real problem.
"I'm not really concerned about it yet," adds Robbins, who is itching to plant his 300 acres each of corn and soybeans. "In another week, I'll start thinking about it."