Local farmers are still suffering from drought

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112792354519561.jpg’, ‘Photo by James Thompson’, ‘Farm Aid co-founder Willie Nelson (center) performs at the 20th annual humanitarian concert Sept. 18 at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park. Farm Aid has raised more than $27 million for American farmers since its first concert in Champaign in 1985.’);

River levels, hurricanes making life more difficult for local farmers

As of Sept. 18, 48 percent of corn crops and 29 percent of soybean crops—Illinois’ two main agriculture exports—were reported as being in very poor or poor condition, according to the Illinois Department of Agriculture (IDAG) Web site.

As stated on the Illinois State Water Survey’s (ISWS) Web site, www.sws.uiuc.edu, “Most of northern and western Illinois remains in a severe or extreme drought.” According to the ISWS site, 14.3 inches of rain has fallen between March and August 2005, 8.8 inches less than usual, making for a paltry crop season.

Illinois State Climatologist James R. Angel said in an e-mail: “The timing was the worst-case scenario. It started early in the spring so that the normal moist soils were dried out by June—just in time for the warm weather to arrive.”

In late July, Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns asking for “all 102 Illinois counties to be declared natural disaster areas.”

According to the national Farm Service Agency, “These counties (including Winnebago) were designated [as primary disaster areas due to drought] on July 27, 2005, making all qualified farm operators eligible for low-interest emergency (EM) loans from the Farm Service Agency (FSA).”

Farmer Roger Christin, manager of the Winnebago County Farm Bureau, said, “We don’t know what will be becoming of it [EM loans].”

Illinois farmers have yet to receive any EM loans, and fund availability is still being debated in Congress. With funds already tied up in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, this is a problematic equation for drought-stricken farmers.

Even with funds, Christin said, “Loans are loans. They will help in the short term. Things will still be tight.”

At the local level, Christin said, “Rising input costs [and] lower yields equal disaster…it’s not just a farmer thing. It affects the whole economy. It hurts everybody.”

Christin said there will be loss due to the drought, but actual figures won’t be available until harvesting begins in the next couple months. Profits made will probably have to be reinvested into farm maintenance, meaning farmers will do less consumer spending, further crippling the economy.

Another local grain farmer, Tim Leick, said, “I’m going to have to cut back on machinery replacement…patch up the old combine and hope it lasts another year.”

Leick estimated his yields will be down one-third. He has crop insurance, but “farmers take 20-30 percent loss before insurance kicks in,” he said.

The low levels of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers also cause problems.

According to the IDAG Web site, “Illinois exports nearly half of its corn and soybeans, transporting much of the grain down the Mississippi to New Orleans.” The ISWS Web site reported: “[The] water level in the Mississippi River at St. Louis fell almost 7 feet from Aug. 31 to Sept. 7. [The] water level in the Illinois River has fallen since the last significant rains occurred in mid-August, and is once again at near-record low flow.”

Water levels are making shipping difficult. Barges able to dock are now more expensive to fuel. Damaged ports at New Orleans add to the suffering. Surrounding states had profitable growing seasons, allowing them to sell crops at cheaper prices, damaging local farmers.

“In most cases, we see improvement in the fall and winter months,” Angel said. “Most of the rains in October and November will go towards rejuvenating the soil moisture. My guess is that soil moisture will improve over the next few months. We may have to wait longer to see sustained improvements in stream flow and groundwater supplies. After all, it took us six months to get into this so it may take us six months to get out of it.”

Rains coming would be “too little, too late,” according to Christin. “This time of year, we need drier weather for harvesting,” he said. “[If we have dry weather], we don’t have to spend money…to dry out our crops.”

In other words, yes, the recent heavy rains came too late and at the worst possible time.

In spite of all the belt-tightening and aggravation, Christin remains optimistic.

“Sometimes you have good years, sometimes you don’t,” Christin said. “On the bright side, [because of the drought] we are developing hybrid [crops] more resistant to drought.”

Leick is also determined to get past this dry season. “[We’ll] sharpen up the pencil and work through it,” he said.

If you are a farmer struggling with the drought, contact Roger Christin at 815-962-0653; e-mail winnco@choiceonemail.com; or contact Farm Aid at farmhelp@farmaid.org or call toll-free at 800-FARM-AID (800-327-6243) between 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

From the Sept. 28-Oct. 4, 2005, issue

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