Farmers' hopes wither: Heat, drought spell disaster for Tennessee corn crop

Farmers' hopes wither: Heat, drought spell disaster for Tennessee corn crop

July 21st, 2012 by Ben Benton in News

Cindy Anderson, right, owner of Summitville Grain & Feed, and Trisha Spears talk about damage to Anderson's corn crop from drought and high temperatures. Anderson's farm has about 1,300 acres of corn planted this season.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

TENNESSEE CROP CONDITIONS

Condition ratings for corn crops, cotton crops, soybean crops and pasture.

Crop Very poor // Poor // Fair Good // Excellent

Corn

Tennessee 25% // 30% // 27% // 17% // 1%

U.S. 16%// 22%// 31%// 27%// 4%

Cotton

Tennessee 5% // 14% // 35% // 43% // 3%

U.S. 5%// 13%// 37%// 37%// 8%

Soybeans

Tennessee 10% // 20% // 36% // 30% // 4%

U.S. 10% 20% 36% 30% 4%

Pasture

Tennessee 34% // 34% // 24% // 8% // 0%

U.S. 24% // 30% // 28% // 16% // 2%

Source: University of Tennessee Extension Service

Record-setting temperatures and widespread drought are spelling disaster for the 2012 corn crop in Tennessee, and officials say there's little chance of enough rain the rest of the summer to even raise hopes for a rebound.

Despite recent rains, Tennessee agriculture officials say farmers will lose about half of their corn yield this season - a crop typically valued at $280 million to $300 million a year. The loss will have an effect felt all the way to grocery store cash registers.

"It's going to be a pretty significant loss for Tennessee farmers," state Department of Agriculture Director of Public Affairs Tom Womack said this week.

The situation is not as dire in Georgia, where crop yields are holding steady despite drought conditions, according to officials.

A drive from Chattanooga west on Interstate 24 goes past green farmland in Marion County and Grundy County and on the west side of Monteagle Mountain. But as Grundy and Franklin counties give way to Middle Tennessee's basin, the corn becomes shorter, browner and thinner.

The U.S. Drought Monitor shows most of East Tennessee ranges from "normal" to "abnormally dry" conditions, while the western two-thirds of Tennessee is in "moderate" to "severe" drought, with "exceptional" drought conditions on the western edge of the state.

That's not news to Cindy Anderson, owner of Summitville Grain & Feed Co. and a few thousand acres of cropland in Middle Tennessee's Coffee County.

Anderson said her corn crop is doing worse than average - about 20 to 30 bushels per acre in a field a short ways down the road from the granary and store the family runs - and the only help recent rains gave was to turn the stumpy corn stalks green. Last year's corn yield stood at 130 to 140 bushels per acre, she said.

Many farmers west of Monteagle Mountain are having the same experience, she said.

"That old saying, 'It takes rain to make grain' is true," Anderson said.

A walk through one of the family's Clark Road cornfields offers proof. Field corn stalks that just reached Anderson's shoulder should be 10 to 12 feet tall now with two good ears of corn on each one, she said.

But the stalks in the field on Thursday had about one ear per three to six stalks, and more than half of those ears had few fully developed kernels; some none at all.

Steve Harris, Coffee County University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension agent, said the dry June and early July heat kept most of the corn from fully pollinating and stalled hay cutting this season.

"About two weeks ago, it started raining, but the rain we're getting now won't do any good," he said.

Last year, some Coffee County farmers produced as much as 180 bushels of corn per acre, but this year they'll do very well to get even half that, Harris said.

"When we harvest, we'll know how bad it is," he said.

Recent rains gave some relief to hay and soybean farmers, but more precipitation is needed through the rest of the season to make sure those yields don't go the way of corn, he said.

And what hits the corn crop reverberates elsewhere.

"A lot of farmers who cut corn for silage for feed for livestock in some cases are having to cut a month earlier than normal because corn has suffered so much damage, has already dried up in many cases, and is not expected to recover," Womack said.

For some livestock farmers, the only answer is to sell off part of their herd. Most will have a hard time harvesting as much hay as last year, he said.

Those factors drive up grocery bills on everything from produce to meat, he said.

The "best we can hope for" is enough rain to recover some of the soybean crop, some of West Tennessee's corn crop and turn pastureland from brown to green, he said.

Northwest Georgia conditions are similar to Tennessee's, but in a 125-mile-wide swath south of a rough line drawn from Atlanta eastward to Elbert County, the Peach State plunges into "extreme" and "exceptional" drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

But "periodic rain and tropical storms" have kept corn fields in decent shape despite what Georgia Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Yearta described as a "hydraulic" drought.

Georgia corn crop yields should not be hurt much this season, Yearta said.

"Our crops have been spared, but aquifers are down from previous years," she said. "It could be a lot worse."

"Worse" is west of the Mississippi River.

The U.S. Drought Monitor map shows "exceptional," "extreme" and "severe" drought conditions across most of the nation's heartland. So far in the 2012 growing season, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated about 1,300 counties in 29 states as disaster areas. The Drought Monitor reports that more than half the continental U.S. is in a "moderate" to "exceptional" drought.

Nationwide last week, the Drought Monitor showed 30 percent of crops in the 18 primary corn-growing states were rated in "poor" or "very poor" condition. About half of the pastureland in the U.S. has the same ratings, figures show.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has designated all but the 17 Georgia counties nearest the Tennessee and North Carolina lines as "drought fast-track" areas, eligible for low-interest assistance loans.

USDA records show that more than half of Alabama, all of South Carolina, all but the southern tip of Florida and 23 Tennessee counties in the northwest corner received the fast-track designation.

HOT, DRY SUMMER CONTINUES

Chances are slim that farmers will see their rain gauges catching up any time soon, but this week's Drought Monitor update forecasts possible "beneficial rains" from the Gulf of Mexico to Mid-Atlantic states through Monday, with some rains spreading into the eastern sections of the Tennessee and Ohio valleys.

The National Weather Service forecasts rainfall in Tennessee and Georgia will be below normal for the next two weeks, and the long-range outlook does not show any more than normal precipitation.

In Tennessee, Coffee County's neighbor, Franklin County, gained a little ground on rainfall last week -- about 1.5 inches to 3 inches or more - but it was too late to help corn crops much there, either, said Ed Burns, UT extension agent in Franklin County.

"A few isolated areas saw over 4 inches of rain," Burns said. "The much- needed rain has helped cool temperatures, green pastures and breathes new hope for soybean and cotton yields."

Anderson's business deals with farmers from all over Middle Tennessee, and the weather has been a killer for everybody, she said.

"The high price of corn [last year] encouraged more corn to be planted," Anderson said with a shake of her head. "Farming is such a gamble."