St. Louis A deepening drought in the nation’s farm states has cut further into this fall’s harvest, with farmers now expected to pull from their fields the lowest corn yield in more than a decade.
But American farmers are still expected to produce their eighth-largest harvest ever, and while there’s sure to be a rise in prices at the grocery stores, there’s little risk of a failed harvest that would lead to shortages on the shelves.
The U.S. Agriculture Department predicted the nation’s biggest harvest ever in the spring, when farmers planted 96.4 million acres of corn — the most since 1937. But it cut its estimate a month ago and again Friday, saying it now expects the nation to produce 10.8 billion bushels, the least since 2006.
If that estimate holds, the federal government says it will be enough to meet the world’s needs and ensure there are no shortages. But experts say food prices will almost certainly climb as corn is a widely used ingredient found in everything from cosmetics to cereal, colas and candy bars.
The drought stretching across the U.S. from Ohio west to California is deepest in the middle of the country, and major farm states like Iowa and Illinois are seeing conditions get worse each week. Farmers credit advances in seed technology that have produced hardier, more drought-tolerant corn for any harvest at all.
“I have to be honest with you, I’m totally stunned we have corn with green stalks and leaves after going through weeks of 105-degree temperature,” said Garry Niemeyer, the National Corn Growers Associated president who has 1,200 acres of corn and 800 acres of soybeans near Auburn, Ill. “Our corn yield normally would be about 190 bushels per acre. This year, if I get 110, I’d be thrilled to death.”
The USDA’s latest estimate predicts corn farmers will average 123.4 bushels per acre, down 24 bushels from last year in what would be the lowest average yield in 17 years. But the yield would still be as good as nearly a decade ago, when the average was about 129 bushels in a year without drought.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack trumpeted the resilience of U.S. farmers and ranchers on Friday, saying he didn’t expect immediate increases in food prices and was optimistic the U.S. would continue meeting global demand for grain. The U.S. is the world’s top exporter of corn, soybeans and wheat.
“Americans shouldn’t see immediate increases in food prices due to the drought,” Vilsack said during a trip to drought-stricken Nebraska.