Flooding creates mess for Hoosier farmers

June 11, 2008

After a damp, chilly spring, grain farmer Norman Voyles Jr. still had 300 acres of soybeans yet to plant when a monsoon-like storm dumped 10 inches of rain on his central Indiana farm last weekend.

The resulting deluge flooded a quarter of Voyles' 1,800 acres of corn and soybeans - one in a parade of drenching storms that have put large swaths of Midwestern cropland under water and thrown uncertainty into commodity markets.

"There was mud on everything that wasn't under water," said Voyles, 49. "We'll know for sure by this weekend how much we'll have to replant, how many fields are gone."

With food prices already high and corn now commanding record-high prices, the flooding in Indiana and other Midwestern states will likely push those prices even higher, said Christian Mayer, an analyst for Northstar Commodity in Minneapolis, Minn.

"Until the weather straightens itself out, you're going to see this higher price for corn and higher food prices for that matter," he said.

The recent wave of flooding prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday lowered the nation's corn production estimate to about 11.7 billion bushels - or 10 percent less than last fall's crop.

A tighter corn crop means higher prices for the corn-based feeds used to fatten up cattle, hogs and chickens.

And higher feed prices will eventually drive up meat prices because many livestock farmers are likely to slaughter some of their livestock, reducing meat supplies, said Darrel Good, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of Illinois.

"Rather than holding back some animals to expand the herd, they'll just send them to slaughter. Nobody wants to panic, but everybody's concerned," said Good, who adds that it's too soon to know what the impact on retail prices might be.

The recent flooding in some of the nation's top corn- and soybean-growing states comes after a wet, damp spring brought planting delays which often translate into reduced yields.

In Iowa - the nation's top producer of both corn and soybeans - about 14 percent of that state's soybean crop has still not been planted, Palle Pedersen, a soybean agronomist at Iowa State University, said Wednesday.

Iowa's flooding is only expected to worsen if another three to five inches of rain falls as forecast Wednesday night, and Pedersen said drenched fields have already killed about 10 percent of the soybean crop there.

"It's close to a disaster area," he said. "We know we're not going to get an average yield, that's for sure, but how low we'll go we don't know that yet."

Although it's getting late in the planting season, Pedersen said some farmers will still be planting corn - shorter, fast-maturing hybrids - over the next two weeks if fields dry out because they've already applied costly corn-specific fertilizers and herbicides to those fields.

He said the wet conditions will bring a heightened risk of insects and disease, which could cut yields further.

Emerson Nafziger, a professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the wet spring has been a big disappointment to Midwestern farmers because corn prices are at record highs - corn topped $7 a bushel for the first time Wednesday - and soybean prices are approaching record levels.

"It's a bittersweet thing when farmers see prices go up and they don't have a very good crop to sell," he said.

The heavy rains and flooding that are making life tough for grain farmers have also frustrated vegetable growers such as Richard de Wilde, who owns a 120-acre organic farm, Harmony Valley Farm, in southwestern Wisconsin.

Last weekend, about a foot of rain fell on his farm in Viroqua, Wis., flooding about 20 acres of vegetables ranging from tomatoes to parsnips. Some fields weren't just flooded, but were covered by gravel and silt washed out of surrounding woodlands.

"We lost a nice big field of tomatoes unfortunately, and peppers and sweet potatoes. We lost a field of beets and four weeks' worth of plantings of cilantro, spinach and salad greens," de Wilde said.

He's already notified his customers, including restaurants in Madison, Wis., that some of the organic produce they had ordered is gone and won't be ready until later in the season.

Voyles, who farms with his brother and an uncle 30 miles south of Indianapolis, said he probably lost about 150 acres of corn to floodwaters. He'll be replanting them with soybeans once that land dries out because it's too late to replant corn in his area.

He said his flooding woes come in a year when the cost of raising a corn and soybeans have skyrocketed in the past year. Fertilizer prices have risen about 75 percent since last year and fuel prices are $1 a gallon higher than a year ago.

"Our input costs are so high this year - fertilizer, fuel, chemicals, plus the price of seed. Everything is just so high, it's like throwing that money away," he said.

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