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Photos by Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
USDA officials Michael Scuse, left, and Greg Matli, center, talk with farmer Randy Schaefer after surveying his field Wednesday. Schaefer has lost two-thirds of his corn yield this year because of the drought.

Corn hit hardest in drought

Area yields could be down 20% to 35%

“We’re looking at a 25 percent yield if we’re lucky and it rains,” said Jason Lutter, who farms in three area counties.
The Journal Gazette

If someone knows a way to recover the corn crop, northeast Indiana farmers are all ears.

Even if the region was deluged with rain over the next few weeks it wouldn’t save the scorched area. That much was confirmed Wednesday during a visit to Allen County by a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official. Corn has been hit hardest by the drought.

About 30 people listened to Michael Scuse, farm and foreign agricultural services undersecretary, who surveyed the heat-ravaged cornfield of Fort Wayne farmer Randy Schaefer. The farmer has 2,000 acres sprouting soybeans, wheat and corn. He harvests 900 acres of corn, but said he has lost at least two-thirds of his yield.

“Some farms have irrigation systems and they may be OK,” Schaefer said. “The equipment and operation costs are really expensive. We can’t afford that. We’ve just always been able to get along.”

Scuse, who plans to visit Johnson County today, visited three farms in Paulding County, Ohio, on Tuesday. He is seeking input from farmers on how to improve federal programs to assist them. There are low-interest loans available, but Scuse urged the immediate passage of the proposed farm bill that would provide further assistance.

Last week, growers in more than 50 Indiana counties – including every one in northeast Indiana – learned they were eligible for disaster aid through the Department of Agriculture. But that won’t solve all their problems. For instance, some farmers at Wednesday’s gathering asked whether the USDA could help out with insurance premiums. Scuse said that unfortunately there was nothing the agency could do on that front.

“You’d have to work something out with your (insurance) company,” he said, glumly.

If a farmer is unable to afford the premium for crop insurance payments, they could be deferred, but interest would still accrue.

Gonzalee Martin, agriculture representative for the Allen County Purdue Cooperative Extension Service, said corn yields in the area could be down 20 percent to 35 percent – or worse.

“If we got some rain, the soybeans could bounce back,” he said, “but I don’t care how much rain we get, it’s not going to make a difference for the corn crop.”

Help could be on the way.

Purdue University scientists are studying tropical varieties of corn to understand which genes allow the plants to survive in hot, dry weather. The objective is to find ways to integrate those genes into corn that is bred to produce high yields in the Midwest.

As for consumers, Hoosier shoppers probably won’t notice a spike in food prices until next year, Scuse said.

“It won’t happen all at once,” he said. “It’s too early to put a dollar loss on this yet. But the farmers are already feeling it.”

Last year, Allen County recorded 131.6 bushels of corn per acre. That harvest is certain to be less this year, officials said. According to 2010 figures, Indiana was the fifth-highest corn-producing state in the nation. Iowa had the highest corn yield.

But it was Indiana that got national attention Wednesday as a CNN crew reported from Burnettsville, about 90 miles west of Fort Wayne.

The attention doesn’t surprise 75-year-old retired farmer David Salomon. The Churubusco resident said fruits and vegetables were noticeably absent when he attended the Whitley County Fair this week.

“This is the driest I’ve seen it in my life,” he said.