The brutal weather this summer throughout the Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee region is leading to dire consequences for farmers and consumers. Some corn farmers in southern and western Kentucky have had almost all of their crop wiped out this season. That has many agriculture experts predicting both short and long term effects on commodity and food prices throughout the region.
Evidence of the drought can be seen at Mark Chapman's rural Warren County farm.
Mark and his father farm 1,800 acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat. To the untrained eye, Mark's corn crop doesn't look that bad. The outer rows of corn nearest the road seem like they have tall stalks with decent sized ears.
But when you take a closer look, you realize those impressions are deceiving.
Walking just a few rows deep into Mark Chapman’s corn crop, you can see the damage that has been done by the extreme heat and lack of rainfall. Mark picks off a sickly-looking ear of corn to show a visiting reporter the damage that has been done. This season, ears like this are much more the rule rather than the exception.
“We’re looking at an ear here that is maybe only half-pollinated. This ear is about 15 grains long, and ordinarily you would want something per row in the 36 to 40 range. This ear only has 12 rows around. Normally this variety of corn would have 18 rows around," says Chapman.
He estimates his corn yield will be only 25% to 30% of what it would normally be. The rain that finally came to the south-central Kentucky area and other parts of the region in the last few weeks fell too late to help the area’s corn crop.
One of the cruel ironies of this drought is that it comes at a time when farmers have the opportunity to get record prices for their crops.
“That’s one of the things that can be emotionally frustrating, to have great opportunities for sales, but not have the crop to take advantage of it,” says Chapman.
Instead, many farmers in our region are trying desperately just to harvest anything from their corn crop. Mike Bullock is an agricultural instructional specialist with Bowling Green Technical College. He spends a lot of his time walking through farmland in the south-central Kentucky area, assessing the quality and quantity of various crops. He says the average corn yield in the region is about 140 bushels per acre.
This summer, he says, farmers will be lucky if they get even a third of that.
“I’ve been in several fields with other agronomists, and there are some fields that won’t make five bushels," says Bullock. "A lot of people on the south side of Warren County toward Woodburn and Simpson County, they are really devastated in that part of the state. They’re looking at maybe five to ten bushels.”
Bullock says the impact of the region’s low corn yield will go well beyond the farmer’s markets and grocery stores. The number one use for corn in the US, he points out, is ethanol. The second most common use is livestock feed.
Bullock says the region’s low corn yield is already having a trickle-down impact on livestock producers in the area. The corn those producers use to feed their cattle was already at record-high prices. Now, with less corn available on the market, those feed prices are even higher, forcing livestock owners to make difficult decisions.
“Now people are selling off and cattle prices are dropping drastically. So if you have to go out and buy corn at $8 to feed your livestock…economically you can’t do it. It’s not justifiable," he says.
And the dominoes will continue to fall, according to Bullock. More cattle going on the market now means lower prices, which will be a major hit to the bottom line of livestock producers.
This comes at a time of record demand globally for beef, with countries like China wanting increased access to U.S. beef markets. With less beef on the market later, prices for consumers are sure to spike.