It’s beginning to be a big story in the national news, but it’s been the subject of conversation in Illinois for most of the summer. This state, and the entire Midwest Corn Belt, is under a severe drought. Its impact will be felt soon, not only in the United States, but throughout much of the world.
How bad is it? Rockford, in northern Illinois, has had less than an inch of rain since June 1. That's comparable to what the desert city of Phoenix has had in the same period, and it's less than half that of another desert city, El Paso, Texas. In a normal summer, we would have had seven inches of rain by now. For the eitnre year we are nearly 50% below our average rainfall. That’s bad, but it’s especially bad since the drought hit during the months we need rain the most.
It’s annoying for city dwellers like me, who are fighting a losing battle to keep lawns green and flower beds in bloom. It’s devastating, however, for those whose livelihood depends on rain. The majority of farmers in this part of the country do not irrigate. Even if the rain comes tomorrow, it’s too late for them. The corn tassels have sprouted, but it has been too dry for them to produce pollen. Without pollination, the kernels cannot develop on the ears. For much of the Corn Belt, the most critical part of the growing season is over, and it was a complete failure.
70% of the shelf space at your grocery store is tied to the corn harvest. Look at the ingredients on the packages in your kitchen cupboard. Corn starch, corn oil, or corn sugars are in virtually every packaged item of food that you buy. Prices for those items will begin to rise by the end of this month, when the impact of the failed harvest will begin to be felt.
The direct consumption of corn for food constitutes only a fraction of the corn produced in the United States. More corn is used for livestock feed than for any other purpose. The price of meat may briefly go down, as farmers and ranchers sell their stock due to the dearth of feed. That deflationary trend will be short lived, however, as meat prices soar next year when the shortage of beeves and swine due to this year's stock reduction becomes apparent.
The shortage of corn will have other effects. Expect prices at the gas pump to go up with a shortage of corn ethanol. The chemical impact of the drought will affect more than just ethanol production. Many plastics, fabrics, and adhesives are made from corn starch, and all of them will be affected by a shortage of corn.
The Great Drought of 2012 will be felt for a long time. Illinois is Ground Zero. This is what it looks like.
At first glance, you don't notice the damage done to the crops. The bucolic countryside is green, and the fields are full of corn and beans just like they are every year. Get out of your car and inspect the crops more closely, however, and you will understand the severity of this crisis. Even if the corn has managed to keep its green color, the crop's stunted height and curled leaves make the plants look more like a pineapple plantation than a healthy corn field.
Sometimes the ruin is more obvious:
The soybean field doesn't look too bad at first...
...but the leaves are limp, and the plants are barely half as high as they should be. You look closer. Where are the pods?
The horse pasture is in sad shape.
Much of Northern Illinois was tall grass prairie land prior to settlement by European-Americans. Several parks in the area have preserved or restored the prairie grasslands. There is one park in particular that I enjoy. It features a bike path that winds through the restored prairie, and it encircles an old quarry that is now a scenic little pond. One cannot escape noticing the drought when walking or riding along the trail.
The quarry pond is drying out.
In normal years, the prairie would be full of summer blossoms, birds, and butterflies. Not so this year.
Take a closer look and you can understand why the butterflies have stayed away.
Don't have to worry about high water this year:
Closer to home, I drove by a public golf course. They've managed to keep the greens green, but if you look in the distance you can see the fairways are a lost cause.
Making my way back home, my mind kept wandering back to the little country church I drove by outside of town. I'm sure the farm families who make up the congregation were praying for rain this past Sunday. I hope their prayers are answered, even if it's too late for most of this year's crops.