Saturday, July 28, 2012

Looking at the drought

Went to see the extent of the damage the drought has caused Iowa.  Some big impressions:
  • They planted a lot of corn this spring.  Without a doubt, if the weather had been good, this would have been the largest corn crop EVAH.
  • The damage in Iowa is spotty.  A field that looks fine can be less than a mile from one that looks wiped out.
  • Talked with an utterly charming farmer in Decorah who gave me some pointers of what to look for.  I'll get to the pointers in a second but start with his observation that even corn that still looks green from the road can be in serious trouble.  "Thirty years ago," he said, "a drought like this would have turned the corn brown and would have laid it down.  Now with modern genetics, corn is much more drought tolerant.  They must have snuck a ragweed gene in there somewhere."
This first picture is of corn near my house.  It is green all the way to the ground.  The silk has changed color indicating pollination has occurred.  The leaves are shiny.  And the tassels have popped open releasing the pollen.  These plants are over seven feet tall (215 cm).  (All these pictures have a full-sized version if you click on them.)

This picture is of stressed corn south of Decorah Iowa.  Yes, those are supposed to be ears.  Hard to tell with no silk.

These tassels have not opened so no pollen has been released.  The leaves are dull and there are actually brown spots.

This field is probably a total loss—at least in the sense that it will not be worth the costs to harvest.  The plants are seriously stunted, the leaves are turning brown and the stalks have turned brown from the ground up.

Corn can sustain wind damage even in good growing years.  It is reason #1 why GPS has become so popular in tractors and combines.  Even if it is almost impossible to see the rows when harvesting, it doesn't matter so much if you have GPS information about where everything was planted in the first place.  Even so, this field was obviously already in trouble before the windstorm—note the telltale browning of the stalks near the ground.  Drought weakened the plants and the windstorm was probably nastier because of climate change—not so long ago winds during a rainstorm might reach 25 mph (40 kph).  Now that same storm might see winds of 40 mph (65 kph).  So here our farmer might have been blessed with a needed rain squall only to see the wind was strong enough to blow down the corn.  This sort of damage, incidentally, went on for about 10 miles (16 k).

We had an interesting day.  We drove over 500 miles (800 k).  Pretty difficult not to like Iowans—especially retired farmers with university degrees, a global view, and a realistic take on history.  It was a simply gorgeous day and since most of it was spent in the incredibly beautiful northeastern corner of Iowa, it should have been one of those lovely memories for the winters.

But Iowa doesn't need gorgeous—it needs rain.  Even the trees are dying in some places.  My farmer expert still thinks that there will be farmers in NE Iowa who will get a crop—but the damage has already been done to yields—the guys who normally get 200 bu./acre will be lucky to get 130.  Of course, if corn does go to $18-20, they will still cover their expenses but my farmer seemed to think there was no way corn would go over $10.  He thought there was some psychological barrier that would not be crossed.  Of course, that was HIS psychological barrier—and I'll bet he sold a LOT of $2 corn over the years.

My thanks to friend John who did all the driving in his LS430.  Silent and graceful makes quick work out of 500 miles.  We whooshed our way home along the upper Mississippi as a "cure" for seeing 200 miles of dying food in the most spectacular farmland on earth.  It wasn't a cure—but it helped a LOT.

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