Around the Nation
5:50 pm
Thu September 27, 2012

Despite Record Drought, Farmers Expect Banner Year

Originally published on Fri September 28, 2012 12:39 pm

After one of the driest summers on record, recent rains have helped in some parts of the country. But overall, the drought has still intensified. The latest tracking classifies more than a fifth of the contiguous United States in "extreme or exceptional" drought, the worst ratings.

In some parts of the Lower Midwest, water-starved crops have collapsed, but the farmers have not. Farmers across the country are surviving, and many are even thriving. This year, despite the dismal season, farmers stand to make exceptionally good money, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Here in 2012, USDA expects net farm incomes to reach their second-highest level on record," says Jason Henderson of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

There are a few reasons for these incredible gains after the brutal drought. For one, with fewer crops being produced, the prices of those crops skyrocketed.

"Crop prices, grain prices, oilseed prices, wheat prices — prices are very, very high," says Dave Swenson, who teaches economics at Iowa State University.

Swenson says that farmers relatively unscathed by the drought, through irrigation or good luck, are having a banner year.

The Good And Bad Of High Grain Prices

Roy Berghaus, who farms the hills near Farmington, Mo., figures he'll make ends meet, harvesting only a third of his normal corn crop.

"Price is the only salvation," he says. "Hopefully it will keep the operation going."

While those high crop prices meant deliverance for some, farmers with animals got the worst of the drought this year as feed grew scarce and extremely expensive.

"I honestly probably wanted to quit several times, just hang it up," dairy farmer Julie Neill of Freeman, Mo., says of the trying summer months. "But there was a lot to that decision. It was giving up a lifetime of everything that we have made."

These days, Neill and Sons Dairy looks pretty lush after a rain, with happy cows crowding together for a drink of fresh water. But all summer, Neill watched the pastures wither and the business unwind. The Neills had to borrow heavily, about $50,000, just to keep their cows alive. Neighbors lent encouragement, and heavy equipment. The farm was in intensive care.

"Honestly, I think it was more on death row," Neill says. "It just didn't feel like it was ever going to end."

For the Neills, relief came as the remnants of Hurricane Isaac — the storm that slammed Louisiana last month — quenched large parts of Arkansas and Missouri.

"We had 5 1/4 inches of rain here," says Neill's husband, Eric. "We had no runoff. Within four days, we had grass growing, and the cows started grazing again."

Today, Neill's cows stand in a field of bright green, knee-high grass, gobbling their fill and making milk.

New Hybrids And Good Old Insurance

But 45 miles west of Neill and Sons, near Baldwin City, Kan., Isaac petered out, bringing too little rain too late in the season to help Luke Ulrich's corn crop.

As Ulrich pilots his big, green combine, harvesting the last eight rows of this year's ragged crop, it amounts to far less than half the normal yield — typical of what farmers are pulling in across the Lower Midwest where drought destroyed billions of bushels of corn.

Ulrich and his brother Jordan are looking to government-subsidized crop insurance to help make up for some of the havoc the drought wreaked on their farm. The insurance, which most Corn Belt farmers carry, is another major boost for farm income: It will likely pay out upward of $15 billion this year.

"Definitely the crop insurance helps, but everybody's situation's different," Jordan Ulrich says.

The crop insurance will only help the Ulrich brothers so much, because they have especially high overhead: They rent farm land and carry a lot of debt. Crop insurance won't pay the mortgage, though the USDA is offering very low interest emergency loans for farmers in their situation.

But Luke Ulrich says there's another way they're staying afloat: newer hybrid soybeans that hung on and are expected to produce a fairly decent and very lucrative crop. "The only bright spot, and I use that term loosely, [is] we can't figure out how these soybeans stayed alive," he says.

While the drought is far from over, U.S. agriculture seems to be coping better than expected. Farmers aren't being forced off the land in huge numbers, and many will go into next year with the tools they need to keep producing enormous amounts of food, weather permitting.

Copyright 2013 KCUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.kcur.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Summer is over, but in parts of the U.S. the drought is not. Recent rains have helped. Still, the federal government classifies more than a fifth of the country as being in extreme or exceptional drought. In parts of the lower Midwest, water-starved crops have collapsed, the cost of feed has jumped.

But as Frank Morris of member station KCUR explains, famers aren't faring as badly as you might expect.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Neill's & Sons Dairy near Freeman, Missouri, looks pretty lush after a rain especially with cows crowding around for a drink of fresh water.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)

MORRIS: But all summer, Julie Neill watched the pastures wither and the business unwind.

JULIE NEILL: I honestly probably wanted to quit several times, just hang it up. But there was a lot to that decision. It was giving up a lifetime of everything that we have made.

MORRIS: Farmers with animals got the worst of the drought this year. Feed grew scarce and extremely expensive. The Neills had to borrow heavily, about 50 grand, just to keep their cows alive. Neighbors lent encouragement and heavy equipment. The farm was in intensive care.

NEILL: Honestly, I think it was on more death row. It just didn't feel like it was ever going to end.

MORRIS: For the Neills, relief came with a name.

ERIC NEILL: I wouldn't have picked Isaac. I would not have picked Isaac for a savior's name.

MORRIS: He's talking about the remnants of Hurricane Isaac. The storm slammed Louisiana last month but quenched large parts of Arkansas and Missouri.

NEILL: We had five and a quarter inches of rain here. We had no runoff. Within four days, we had grass growing and my cows started grazing.

MORRIS: Today, Neill's cows stand in a field of bright green, knee-high grass, gobbling their fill and making milk. But just 45 miles west of here, out near Baldwin, City, Kansas, Isaac petered out, bringing too little rain too late in the season to help with Luke Ulrich's corn crop.

Ulrich pilots his big, green combine, harvesting the last of this year's ragged crop.

LUKE ULRICH: There's your last eight rows of 2012, Frank.

MORRIS: That's it.

ULRICH: That's it.

MORRIS: It's not much, less than half the normal yield. Pretty typical, though, across the lower Midwest where the drought torched billions of bushels of corn. Yet, Jason Henderson with the Federal Reserve says farmers as a whole are doing well.

JASON HENDERSON: Here in 2012, USDA expects net farm incomes to reach their second highest level on record.

MORRIS: Record drought and near record farm income?

DAVE SWENSON: It seems completely illogical.

MORRIS: Dave Swenson teaches economics at Iowa State University. He says the explanation has several parts. For one...

SWENSON: Crop prices, grain prices, oil seed prices, wheat prices, prices are very, very high.

MORRIS: Which means that farmers relatively unscathed by the drought through irrigation or good luck are having a banner year. Even guys like Roy Berghaus, who farms the hills near Farmington, Missouri, figures he'll make ends meet, though he lost two-thirds of his corn crop.

ROY BERGHAUS: Price is the only salvation, you know? Hopefully, it will keep the operation going.

MORRIS: While Berghaus doesn't carry government-subsidized crop insurance, most other Corn Belt farmers do, and it's another major boost for farm income. It will likely pay out upwards of $15 billion this year. Jordan Ulrich, back in Kansas, will get some of that money.

JORDAN ULRICH: Definitely, the crop insurance helps, but everybody's situation is different.

MORRIS: Ulrich and his brother Luke, for instance, have especially high overhead. They rent farm land and carry a lot of debt. Crop insurance won't pay the mortgage. USDA is offering very low interest emergency loans for farmers in their situation. And Luke Ulrich says there's another factor.

ULRICH: Probably the only bright spot - and I use that term loosely as well - is we can't figure out how these soybeans stayed alive.

MORRIS: Newer hybrid soybeans surprised a lot of farmers this year. Plants that hung on are expected to produce a fairly decent and very lucrative crop.

While this year's drought is far from over, U.S. agriculture seems to be coping better than expected. Farmers aren't being forced off the land in huge numbers. And many will go into next year with the tools they need to keep producing enormous amounts of food, weather permitting.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

SIEGEL: And that story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related Program