ACROSS America's soggy Midwest farm belt, planting time for the all-important soybean crop passes this week - but thousands of farmers will not make the deadline.
Torrential summer rains have turned farms into shallow lakes, damaged corn crops, spoiled hay harvests, and swollen rivers like the Mississippi, Des Moines, and Wisconsin to flood stage.
It is too early to estimate the national impact on food prices. But desperate farmers are scrambling to salvage what is left of the summer growing season. Here in Iowa, some soybean growers are even hiring aerial services to sow fields too boggy for tractors.
A trip through Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois this week found virtually every river and stream spilling from its banks. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who toured four Midwest states on Wednesday, called it the worst conditions in 140 years.
``The likelihood is that a lot of farms will go out of business unless the government can intervene,'' he told reporters.
Throughout the region, an estimated 3 million acres of soybeans remain unplanted. Nearly half of Wisconsin's hay crop is reportedly damaged. In some areas, corn which is normally waist-high by July is stunted and yellow after weeks of cold, wet weather.
Mr. Espy said some fields were covered with so much water that they ``look like mirrors.''
The rains and flooding also shut down the heavy, summer barge traffic on the Mississippi River from St. Paul, Minn., to St. Louis.
The river is the lifeline of America's grain business, with billions of dollars worth of crops moving down the Mississippi to world markets. Towboat operators are losing an estimated $1 million a day.
The governors of Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois are seeking federal disaster assistance for their farmers. Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) of Wisconsin estimates flood damage in 30 of his counties at $175 million, including $124 million for farms and crops.
High water from rivers and streams poses the most serious threat to many parts of the Midwest. Here in Davenport, where some riverfront streets are already under water, the Mississippi is predicted to crest Saturday. The city's post office already was forced to evacuate to higher facilities in a vacant Sears store, which the owners rented for $1.
``This is disaster territory,'' said Davenport Postmaster Dan Foley. Officials say rising waters could equal or exceed the all-time record flood of 1965.
But for most of the Midwest, it wasn't rising rivers, but rain, tornadoes, and winds (up to 83 miles per hour) that were the most urgent problems. Storm after storm laced with lightning has pummeled the Midwest for weeks, and left low-lying land too wet to work. In Iowa, cattle waded knee-deep in fields that would normally be green with crops.
The pervading wetness has soured hayfields, and given the region a ``wet sweater'' smell from Ames, Iowa, to western Illinois to southern Wisconsin. In Estherville, Iowa, an official complains: ``The city park has been under water since March 28.'' Deep water also washed through parks and closed streets in Iowa City, near the campus of the University of Iowa.
The weather has even affected the tourist business, with boat rides curtailed at the famous Wisconsin Dells because of treacherous high water.
It was unclear whether the federal government could significantly help. But Espy expressed strong concern: ``We've never had this much water that's affected all the crops,'' he said ``We've always come up with the funds in the past. If we don't spend the money, if farmers can't recover ... the entire food supply will be adversely affected.''
If the government declares the region to be an economic disaster area, farmers could qualify for low-interest loans to carry them until next year's planting season.
But farmers know what they need most: sunshine and blue skies from now to autumn.