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Drought Decimates Illinois Corn Crop

Drought withers Illinois corn crop

Dry spell is worst in state in 20 years

PUTNAM, Ill. -- A thin cornstalk comes out of the dry, dusty ground with just a slight tug, its bug-eaten roots barely an inch long. Husks peel back to reveal scraggly-looking ears not much longer than a thumb.

Jonathan Downey's crop is suffering, the victim of a drought that is stunting crops across the Farm Belt but is especially severe in Illinois.

Illinois is going through its worst dry spell in nearly 20 years. And because the state accounted for nearly one-fifth of the nation's corn crop last year, the market is watching closely.

Downey's 900-acre farm about 100 miles southwest of Chicago lies at ground zero. The leaves on his corn plants are withering and some stalks that should be 10 feet tall by now are barely waist high.

He expects to average only 60 bushels an acre on his 600 acres of corn -- about a third of last year's yield. His land had received less than 2 inches of rain between corn planting in April and the arrival of a cold front that brought 1.3 inches on Tuesday.

'As June progressed, I knew the crop was hurt," the 45-year-old farmer said. 'I knew it could be saved by moisture, but it was just going to take so much moisture to save the corn crop and I didn't think that was realistic."

Other Corn Belt states are in better shape. But Illinois grew 2.1 billion bushels of corn in 2004, second only to Iowa, and its soybean harvest of just under 500 million bushels was the nation's biggest.

'That's why there's a great deal of attention being paid to Illinois," said Joe Victor, vice president of marketing for the commodity research firm Allendale Inc. 'We do matter. It is a concern."

Nearly half the state is classified by the US Agriculture Department as being in extreme drought. With at least 74,000 of the state's farmers estimating crop losses of 30 percent or more, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said Wednesday he would sign a disaster declaration for nearly all of Illinois' 102 counties.

Even so, the effect on commodities prices and the price of corn at the grocery store is expected to be modest because the worst of the drought is pretty much confined to Illinois, said Dale Gustafson, a grain market analyst for Smith Barney in Chicago.

While 56 percent of Illinois's corn crop is rated in very poor or poor condition, only 10 percent of Iowa's crop is poor or worse and 19 percent of Indiana's crop is rated that way.

'It's devastating for the Illinois producers who are in it, but on a national basis this does not compare to the [drought] of 1988 which was over a much, much greater area," said Gustafson, who figures the state's corn crop could be about 25 percent smaller than it was last year.

Illinois has received only about 8.5 inches of rain from March through June, about half the normal amount, according to state officials.

Monty Whipple, who farms 700 acres near Utica, said that while recent rain has helped his corn perk up a bit, he will be lucky to get half the harvest he had a year ago.

'Last year was a great year. It might have been my best ever," he said. 'And now this year might be one of my worst."

He grabbed a white stub only about as long as his thumb -- an ear of corn that by now should be almost a foot long and full of plump yellow kernels. This ear had only a few tiny kernels.

'There's all kinds of ears like that. That ear's not going to get much bigger and then it's going to shrivel down and you'll end up with a little nubbin," he said. 'It won't even get in the combine. It's going to be too small."

Crop insurance will help protect farmers like Downey and Whipple, but higher prices for fertilizer, seed, rent, and fuel this year have already cut their profit margins. A smaller crop will probably mean lower income, even if corn prices rise.

Soybeans also are suffering, but they develop later and still could yield a good crop, if there is enough rain in August. Even so, the crop will be smaller than last year's, dealing another blow to the farm economy.

'You do everything you can and then after awhile it's not in your hands," Whipple said.