Farm worries mount as drought expands

Corn under stress
Corn in some Minnesota fields is under enough drought stress that the plants are beginning to curl and turn brown.
MPR Photo/Mark Steil

(AP) - Minnesota is dry and getting drier.

A band of severe drought now extends from the southwestern corner of the state, through the Twin Cities, up to the northeastern tip.

The only part of Minnesota that isn't short on rain is a portion of the northwest, an updated map released Thursday by the National Drought Mitigation Center shows.

"We are in desperate need of rainfall," said Curt Watson, a farmer in Renville County in west-central Minnesota.

Minnesota's drought
The latest drought map, released July 24, shows the extent of the drought in Minnesota. The dark orange indicates the area where the conditions are severe.
Map courtesy of the U.S. Drought Monitor

Eighty-two percent of the state is now rated abnormally dry, while 35 percent is in moderate drought and 24 percent is in severe drought, according to the drought center. Only 18 percent of the state is close to normal.

The same map shows deepening drought in Wisconsin and increasingly dry conditions in South Dakota. Dought continues in much of the East and West.

"We had very good rainfalls in April and May and then it just stopped," said Ron McCarvel, executive director of the Farm Service Agency office in Nobles County in southwestern Minnesota.

The situation is most critical for corn. As of last Friday, 60 percent of the state's corn crop was rated in fair to very poor condition. It's less critical for soybeans and sugarbeets, which can do their developing later. But the dry weather has already meant less alfalfa and hay.

"Corn needs the rain now," said Watson, who grows corn, soybeans and sugarbeets. "Soybeans are typically made in the August rains, and sugarbeets are made in September rains. All three crops are under distress."

"This is a critical time, so we're all doing rain dances around here."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Wednesday asked the state FSA office to begin assessing the drought damage as a first step toward a possible federal agricultural disaster declaration, which would make low-interest loans available to affected producers.

Perry Aasness, the FSA's state executive director for Minnesota, said the threshold is normally a 30 percent loss of one crop in a county. FSA officials across the state will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see if losses reach that level, he said.

"A large part of the state is going to be affected by this drought," Aasness said. "The question is to what extent. The longer we go, the better idea we have of what that is."

Watson, who's president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, said he's glad the governor and the FSA are getting involved.

Even good farmers in Watson's area who have pockets of lighter soil, which drains quickly instead of retaining moisture, are already seeing severe damage, he said. Timely rains would help stressed plants recover in many cases.

"But there are areas that are so severely damaged that they will not come back to produce a normal crop," Watson said.

Dry soil
Rain has fallen in some parts of the state recently, but many areas are still very dry.
MPR photo/Tim Post

Watson said the drought highlights the need to maintain the safety net in the farm bill now being debated by Congress. While corn prices have been high lately due to the ethanol boom, they've also slipped by around $1.20 a bushel in recent weeks, he noted.

Watson compared the aid to fire insurance on a home - you hope you never need to use it, but it's important to have it in place anyway.

Phyllis Framstad, executive director of the Stearns County FSA office, said dairy producers in central Minnesota are also being affected.

Milk prices have been decent, but hay cuttings have been poor, so the price of hay has risen to around $180 to $190 per ton, eating into their revenue, Framstad said.

This is normally the wettest time of year for Minnesota, said Pete Boulay, assistant state climatologist. The areas where the drought has been developing over central and southern Minnesota are 4 inches to 5 inches short on precipitation, he said.

"It's the equivalent to missing the whole month of June's rainfall," Boulay said.

Another problem across the area is that when rains have come, they've been spotty. McCarvel said that's been discouraging to farmers in his area who've seen neighbors get rain while they miss out.

"They're standing in the yard watching the rain three to five miles south of them -- they've basically got nothing," he said.

A cold front that moved into Minnesota from the northwest brought some welcome rain Thursday. It was even heavy in some spots. But Boulay said it didn't appear ahead of time that it would be enough.

"Even if we get the rain forecast, it wouldn't be a drought-buster by any means," Boulay said.

An inch of rain "could save a lot of crops," but another four or five dry days would cut deeply into corn yields, Framstad said.

"This is a critical time," Framstad said. "So we're all doing rain dances around here."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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