TRAVERSE CITY--Matt Breithaupt's outlook brightened as the skies darkened over his farm near Buckley.
His hopes dimmed again within a few hours as much-needed rain showers quickly dissipated late last week, leaving his parched corn and soybean fields thirsting for more moisture.
Drought conditions aren't just searing farmers across the country's traditional Corn Belt. Row crop growers in northern Michigan also are feeling the heat from a dry, toasty summer.
"We're probably two weeks from losing our crop," said Breithaupt, who raises 400 acres of corn. "There's a lot of stress everywhere right now."
Growing heat stress on the area's row crops follows what's already been a disastrous year for the region's cherry, apple and peach crops devastated by spring storms and frost. Area field crops enjoyed suitable planting conditions this spring, but the growing season's fast start withered because of scant rainfall over the past month. The corn crop is in a critical pollination stage, and if rainfall doesn't come soon growers said it will be too late to save a decent crop.
"If we go two weeks and then get two inches of rain, it's not going to matter," Breithaupt said.
Only 18 percent of Michigan's corn crop was rated as "good" or "excellent" in a weekly crop report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The report rated 56 percent of the corn crop as "poor" or "very poor," among the worst conditions in the country.
"We're losing at least five bushels of yield potential per day," said Frank Lipinski, a long-time corn farmer near Buckley.
His sweet corn plantings aren't faring much better. He planted 13 varieties of sweet corn this year, but only four will see the harvest.
"The rest of them are dead," he said.
State agriculture officials said it's been a fickle growing season in Michigan. Some parts of the state have seen adequate — even heavy — rainfall over the summer. But the amounts vary widely by region, even in northern Michigan. USDA data shows Pellston received more than three inches of rain in the past month, while Beulah received just over a half-inch in the same period.
Lipinski said he could see storms moving south of his farm last weekend. He talked to farmers in the Cadillac area who saw three quarters of an inch of rainfall last weekend, while his farm didn't get any.
"It's frustrating," he said. "The mental state of all the farmers around here is pretty fragile right now."
Some areas of Michigan are so dry it won't matter what happens the rest of the summer.
"Some of the corn is already shot — that's the problem," said Marty Saffell, an agricultural statistician with the USDA's Michigan Field Office. "Even if we do get some rain, it's not going to come back."
Early projections for the 2012 U.S. corn crop came in around 14.5 billion bushels, but growers now expect far less. Saffell said the USDA's corn crop estimate comes out next month. The heat and drought conditions across most corn-growing regions are pushing corn prices to record prices. Corn futures for September traded at more than $8 a bushel on Friday, and December futures were near $8 as well.
A short crop also will mean higher prices for consumers down the road, as corn prices impact a variety of food products from meat to milk to eggs.
Farmers typically benefit from those higher prices. But, much like the region's fruit growers this year, the high prices matter little if farmers have no crops to sell.
"If you have crop issues, even if you get $8 a bushel times zero bushels, that's still zero," Lipinski said.
High prices can generate other unwanted results. It can push up costs in subsequent seasons for various "input" costs such as seed, fertilizer and pesticides, Breithaupt said. Even equipment and insurance costs can be affected.
"It goes on and on and on," he said.
Steep prices can force livestock farmers and others to seek lower-cost alternatives to corn, which could drive down corn prices for future crops, he said.
The next week or so could be the last chance for saving a decent corn harvest. Jeff Lutz, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Gaylord, said there's a "skinny" chance for showers over the weekend and another chance of storms Monday. Temperatures will creep toward 90 degrees again by Monday but cool off into the 80s by midweek.
Lutz said a summer weather pattern settled into the Great Lakes a little earlier than normal this year. He said it's "stretching out" cold fronts as they drop across Michigan and wringing out most of the moisture.
By midweek, a storm system will push into Michigan from the south, which Lutz said could be the region's best chance for a soaking rain. But there are few certainties in what's been a trying growing season for Michigan agriculture.
"It's one of those wait-and-see things," he said.
More crops could be lost due to region's unusual weather
TRAVERSE CITY--Matt Breithaupt's outlook brightened as the skies darkened over his farm near Buckley.
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