Southwest Iowa counties caught in drought

Stalks are burned, brown

Associated Press

DES MOINES -- There are no pods on the stunted soybeans in John Schlorholtz' fields near Percival in southwest Iowa and some of the corn stalks are brown and burned right down to the cracked soil.

The drought has left Schlorholtz facing his worst crop loss in 31 years of farming.

"I'm going to guess near total loss," the 54-year-old farmer said Friday of his 250 acres of beans and 200 of corn.


A few miles away, Rod Finnell, 36, of rural Hamburg, said it's worse than the drought of 1988, because there was still some spring moisture in the soil then.

"This is the driest we've ever seen down here," he said. "For Fremont County, it's pretty much the whole county. It's desperately dry."

Finnell, who farms 1,000 acres each of corn and soybeans, said he's still hopeful of rain in the next week or two, but it would take steady rain and a lot of it to restore any moisture at all to the depleted soil.

"We've just gone so long with nothing," he said, counting up to 60 dry days and beyond.

June and July were the 11th warmest June-July in 130 years of record-keeping and the warmest since 1988, said Harry Hillaker, state climatologist.

Clarke McGrath, a crop specialist with Iowa State University Extension, said Fremont, Mills and Page counties have been hardest hit.

"Then there are areas all through southwest Iowa that are not in very good shape. It seems to be the worst in the corner and gets less severe as it goes on out," he said.

Little chance


Extension officials met recently with farmers in the area to talk about the problem.

"The crops had little chance of making a substantial yield, so we had them chop it and they're going to feed it to livestock," McGrath said. "That's the best option a lot of them have right now."

That won't help Schlorholtz or Finnell, who don't raise cattle or hogs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Rick Management Agency has taken only a preliminary look at possible losses in Fremont, Page, Mills, Montgomery and Pottawattamie counties.

"We have $200 million in liability (estimated total value of the insured crops based on last year's values), and we estimate that the indemnities, that losses, could reach $100 million ..." said Duane Voy, deputy director of the St. Paul regional office, which oversees Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Damage estimates

The agency will begin putting together official estimates in a couple of weeks, he said.

Elwynn Taylor, Extension meteorologist/climatologist at Iowa State University, said this year's extreme comes on the heels of three consecutive years of drier-than-normal weather in western Iowa.


"The rivers essentially have not been flowing anywhere near their normal height since before 2000," he said.

Taylor said the consensus among meteorologists is that an El Nino weather pattern, characterized by warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, is forming.

This "would likely result in improved, if not corrected conditions for the drought-stricken plains and southern Rockies," he said.

But it could be too late -- "for the most part, substantial reduction of potential yield has already occurred," Taylor said.

Hillaker said his study of past years in which El Nino was developing seems to indicate a cooling trend later this month.

He said the jet stream has been poised north of Iowa, leaving hot air stalled over the state. As it moves southward, it will bring cooler air and rain.

If that happens in the next week or two, it probably wouldn't help the corn crop in southwest Iowa, "but things like soybeans that can react a little more quickly to additional rainfall, it might help," Hillaker said.

However, he said, the jet stream might not shift in time.


Schlorholtz said he took a graduate class in meteorology from Taylor and learned that "nature's noted for diversity, not for being equal.

"This is one of those times of diversity. It can be dry like '88, '93 was a flood," Schlorholtz said. "That's how you take it."

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