MIDWESTERN farmers have spent the summer cooling their heels. And that's just the problem. Cool, cloudy weather has slowed down the growth of their crops so much that analysts are getting worried.
"It's sort of like a race," says Peter Leavitt, an agricultural meteorologist at Weather Services Corporation in Bedford, Mass. "The crop has a big head start, but it's running very slow."
If it's too slow, the crop won't be mature when frost hits. The big concern is damage to the corn crop, especially in the northern tier of Midwestern states.
"We are definitely a couple weeks behind" in crop maturity, says Cecil Foss, crop statistician for the Minnesota Agricultural Statistics Service. "It's not serious right now.... [But] we need some 80-degree days."
Minnesota just recorded its coldest July ever. The situation isn't much better in Iowa.
"It certainly has been exceptionally cool this summer," says Harry Hillaker, Iowa's state climatologist.
Iowa had its second-coldest and second-wettest July ever. The highest temperature recorded so far this year in the state is 93 degrees - far from the typical high of 104 or 105 degrees.
Historically, an abnormally cool July has usually led to an abnormally cool August, Mr. Hillaker says. That's not good news for Iowa's huge corn crop, which is already a week behind schedule.
The entire Corn Belt is forecast to have a cool August, according to the latest 30-day outlook from the Climate Analysis Center of the National Weather Service. For the crops to catch up, the region needs sun and warm days in August.
"You don't make it up once you reach September," says Ralph Gann, Indiana state statistician.
Indiana's "growing degree days" are running 10 percent to 12 percent behind normal so far this summer. (A "growing degree day" is a mathematical evaluation of the units of heat that the corn crop is receiving.) Soybeans are more dependent on photosynthesis than heat. The prospects for that crop won't become clear until later in the season.
While the corn situation is unsettling, it is far better than a month ago. Entering July, many parts of the Corn Belt were in a drought. Crop markets rose as traders anticipated a smaller crop. Then the rains came.
Illinois, a key producer of corn and soybeans, saw its drought disappear in under a month. On July 2, 94 percent of the state indicated soil moisture was short. On July 31, only 7 percent of the state was short on moisture, 64 percent was adequate, and 29 percent had a surplus.
There was so much rain that some Illinois fields flooded, causing local problems. But "the positive impact on most of the crop will far outweigh the damage that it caused," says Jerry Clampet, Illinois state statistician. Farmers are far better off facing a future threat of frost than a current problem with drought, he adds.
On Wednesday, the United States Department of Agriculture will release its first crop estimates of the year for corn and soybeans. Some analysts believe the estimates will ignore the impact of cool weather and overstate the potential crop. But several state agricultural officials and weather analysts aren't so sure.
For one thing, cool weather poses no immediate threat and, some say, no long-term threat, either. "You don't lose much of a crop to this," says Mr. Leavitt, the agricultural meteorologist.
For another thing, the Midwest could have a bumper crop if the situation improves a little. Indiana's corn crop is actually slightly ahead of schedule, Mr. Gann reports.
So far, the weekly condition reports would put the state's corn crop on par with previous top-yielding years.