By the time the rains stopped falling on the Midwest this spring, crops would be destroyed, people displaced, livestock destroyed, and planting progress halted. The floods, which inundated parts of Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, destroyed as much as 1.3 million acres of corn and 1.7 million acres of soybeans, according to early estimates.
Speakers at a Webinar, The Flood of 2008: Ramifications, Impact and Outlook, broadcast in July, said the impact of the flood in terms of personal property loss and human suffering are enormous. How it has affected corn and soybean production in the region won’t be known until after harvest, but one thing is clear — in weather forecasting there are no experts, only those who have a better notion of when to leave.
According to Jed Lafferty, managing director of life sciences at Planalytics, a private company that provides weather intelligence and insight to a wide range of business, the genesis of the flood probably began one and a half years ago, when atmospheric conditions and sea surface temperatures indicated that a weather phenomenon called El Niño was beginning to falter and meteorologists were beginning to see the beginning of a counter-phenomenon La Niña, or the cooling of sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.
“Throughout the 2007 growing season, we continued to see signs in support of that — a severe drought in the Southeast and the early mid-September freeze in the upper Midwest. In early January, the global meteorological society agreed that we had made a transition from El Niño to La Niña.”
But historical data used to guide forecasts were sending mixed signals, according to Lafferty. “The drought in Australia that impacted wheat production last fall and the unusually high amounts of precipitation in southern California and Arizona in December, 300 percent to 600 percent of normal, were very uncharacteristic of La Niñas.
Meteorologists did believe strongly the spring of 2008 was going to be unusually cold and wet in many parts of the country. Greenness maps used to determine the impact of winter on the hard red winter wheat as it came out of dormancy showed that in the Ohio Valley up into the central Midwest and down into the Mississippi Delta, “there was not a great deal happening in terms of plant development and growth.”
Six weeks later, meteorologists saw the situation had not changed dramatically in those areas. “By the beginning of June, we were still seeing a crop far behind where it should have been for that time of year.”
At that time, there were concerns among farmers about a shortened growing season and whether they would be able to get crops out of the field before a freeze.
Then the rains came — historic amounts hit key cropping areas of the Midwest. Flooding also reached the Iowa cities of Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids.
“Typically, we have some area of the state that has crop problems,” said Loyd Brown, president of Hertz Farm Management in central Iowa. “But this year, it’s not confined to just one area. The flooding and the wet field conditions occurred all across the Midwest, but Iowa is probably the hardest hit. The western Illinois and Nebraska areas have the best crop outlooks at this time. The poorest crop outlook is in central Iowa, north central Iowa and eastern and southeastern Iowa.”
Brown said land along rivers and streams and the flat blacklands of Iowa have been affected the most, with delayed planting, replanting, slow crop development and yellowing in crops.
“Due to all the rainfall, we probably had the worst erosion we’ve had in years. The rainfall came at the worst possible time when soils were mellow from tillage and planting. Where I live just 2 miles north of Nevada, Iowa, we had 19 inches of rain in 21 days from May 23 to June 12 that fell on already saturated soils.
“It’s been estimated that 30 percent of the corn crop will not be mature by the normal frost dates, and the ramifications of that will include a potential cut in crop yields and an extended timeframe for harvest, higher than normal moisture content, higher drying costs and the potential for lower grain quality.”
John Hester, a retailer from east Iowa, said yield losses due to late plantings will exceed losses due to flooding and replanting. “I don’t think we’ve lost 10 percent in the river bottoms like we’ve heard, and we’re just tickled to death to have what we have right now, which is corn from 6 inches tall to 6 feet tall.”
Another problem has been the impact of the rushing waters on the region’s infrastructure, according to Hester, who said he was unable to leave his location due to flooding and loss of bridges. “It was starting to go to pot last year. The farm to market roads turned to junk. We have four semis that haul to the Mississippi River, and they have to use a lot of extra fuel to go many miles around. It’s going to take months and months to get these roads back into the shape we need.”
Hester showed a photograph of a flooded farm field with a fake shark fin jutting from the waters. “It reminds me of the sharks that are still out there, trying to get a bigger piece of the farmers’ pie. The 2008-09 corn and soybean crops could be some of the best years we’ve ever had. Yet look at what’s happened to inputs and the products that I have to buy. Just this year alone, according to USDA, fertilizers are up 64 percent, fuel is up 43 percent, and seed is up 30 percent.
“If we do that again this year, our corn production costs could get to $5 per bushel. Since Wall Street doesn’t seem to have much of a conscience, and companies always have to beat the previous year (in terms of profits), we’re going to see fertilizer and seed go even higher than it has.
“Farmers are just waiting for the next shark to show up and take another piece out of the pie. We’re frustrated out there. We’re thankful that no one in our area was killed in the flood.
Ron Litterer, a Greene, Iowa, corn producer and president of the National Corn Growers Association, said the worst-case scenario he saw was a farmer who lost 20,000 acres of cropland to a broken levee.
Litterer says corn’s projected 1.4 billion-bushel carryover “will help carry us through this situation. We’ll know more as the crops grow. At this point, we do expect to meet all our needs and still have a modest carryover at the end of the marketing year.”
Bill Northey, Iowa’s secretary of agriculture, said the flooding “has created more uncertainty within agriculture than we’ve seen in a long, long time. In a lot of cases, there are still margins for the prices that are out there.”