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Archive for Friday, July 29, 2005

Illinois corn crop withers in state’s worst drought in nearly 20 years

July 29, 2005

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— 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 one-third of last year's bounty. 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 it 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 U.S. 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' 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.

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