Business

Drought and derecho deal dual blow to Iowa farmers

But it's a Catch-22 if rain is wanted or dreaded after storm

Jason Fagle and his 10-year-old son. Mitchell, walk Wednesday between two fields of drought-stressed and derecho-battere
Jason Fagle and his 10-year-old son. Mitchell, walk Wednesday between two fields of drought-stressed and derecho-battered corn on the Fagle’s farm near Midway. Fagle noticed the lack of rain beginning to impact his 100 acres of corn at the end of July. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)
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Jason Fagle’s farm near Midway stretches to just under 200 acres, 100 of which were growing corn before the derecho flattened all but 4 acres.

As the farmer works to mitigate the damage and salvage what he can from the Aug. 10 storm, all he can hope is that the drought that’s progressed across Iowa this summer keeps things dry a little longer.

As unusual as it seems for a farmer to hope for a little more drought, this has been a most unusual season as growers have tried to cope first with the dryness and then with the derecho.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared a drought disaster for a large swath of western Iowa, now making farmers in 31 counties eligible for aid.

The drought has only gotten worse since then. As of Sept. 1 the U.S. Drought Monitor, which maps the locations and severity of dry conditions across the country, reported that 99.4 percent of Iowa was under some sort of dry spell, from abnormally dry weather to extreme drought.

Currently almost half of the state is under a moderate drought, with parts of western and central Iowa seeing the worst of it and being categorized as having an extreme drought.

Most of Linn County is categorized as abnormally dry, and Fagle said he could see evidence of dryness before the derecho, as his corn began to turn brown from the ground up.

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The farther south you go, he said, the more evidence there is of drought in the crop. Johnson County is under a moderate drought.

“When you got into the southern part of the state, so like Johnson County, and … the western part of the state, you really started seeing the effects on the crop driving down the road from the drought,” Fagle said.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Hydrology Resources Coordinator Tim Hall said a lack of normal rainfall and dry, windy conditions early in the season have led to the worst of the droughts.

The derecho didn’t really affect the state of the drought, he said, since only a minimal amount of rain came along with the 100 mph winds.

As it takes a while to fully enter a drought, it can also take a while to get out of it, Hall said. The best way to remedy a drought isn’t with large storms, which can cause flooding. If those who follow droughts and other weather patterns could make the rules, Hall joked, they’d like to see a little more-than-average rainfall for the next couple of months in order to get out of the dry weather. September and October typically see around 2.5 to 3.5 inches of rain each, so getting a little more than that would help the dryness.

However, keeping things dry for a while is in the best interest of farmers trying to harvest and clean up their fields in the wake of the derecho.

“Unfortunately … what’s good for the drought may not be good for the harvest,” Hall said.

State Agronomist Mike Henderson said it’s a Catch-22 with what people want from the weather right now. Consistently wet weather could be detrimental to crops — especially downed crops — because it encourages the growth of mold and makes it harder to harvest. However, moisture is needed for certain crops before harvest and to get cover crops growing.

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Harvest for farmers like Fagle generally happens in early-to-mid October, so they have to decide if they’re going to try to get the flattened corn and risk damaging machinery for a smaller yield. With rain, that downed corn will begin to decay, and even corn that’s still standing won’t slide as easily into the combine.

“Quality of the plant that is left goes down even more, and makes it even more difficult to harvest,” he said.

The soybeans Fagle planted have bounced back from the storm, but they could use the rain that his corn now needs to avoid.

Thursday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig toured parts of the state to see the dual effects of the drought and the derecho, which alone was estimated to cause nearly $3.8 billion in losses to agriculture.

Perdue promised yet more federal aid.

“Most Iowa farmers have multi-peril crop insurance coverage, which will help them recover a portion of the losses to crops,” Naig said in a statement. “Farmers have invested a significant amount of time and financial resources in this year’s crop. It will be important for USDA and crop insurance providers to continue working with Iowa farmers as they assess the damage to their crops and potential harvest and grain quality implications.”

The USDA said it will issue a new round this Friday of price estimates for corn and soybeans.

Henderson and those with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service have been working with farmers to develop strategies for dealing with the aftereffects of the storm and the ongoing drought.

While weather patterns vary from year to year, it’s a matter of fitting everyday practices into a multiyear conservation model to help soil and crops in the future.

“It’s a mixed bag of what would really be beneficial,” Henderson said.

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