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WEEKLY FARM: If Late, Soggy Crops Aren’t Enough ... What About Frost?

August 14, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ All that rain, muddy fields and cloudy skies this summer put grain harvests 7-10 days behind schedule in the Midwest, introducing a new uncertainty for farmers - what will happen if there’s an early frost?

The American Farm Bureau estimates that 1,200 million bushels of corn - 16 percent of the estimated yield in eight states - could be at risk if autumn suddenly turns cold.

″There’s concern because of the lateness of this year’s grain crop, the immaturity,″ said Keith Collins, a top Agriculture Department economist. ″This is true even in the eastern corn belt where there has been no flooding, where the crop looked good.″

In normal years, the first frost across the corn belt is in the first two weeks of October, ″so if we have a normal frost this year and a crop that is 7-10 days late, then it will do a little more damage than usual,″ Collins said.

Chances are good for an early frost in some major growing regions. The probability is 60 percent or higher that temperatures in the next three months will average below normal in the Upper Plains and the Upper Midwest states, said Richard Hitchens, a National Weather Service forecaster.

The Agriculture Department’s crop report last week indicated that about 7.1 million acres of corn and soybeans were lost either to acreage not being planted or flooding. The lost value was estimated at $2.5 billion.

An early frost probably would not seriously reduce overall production, Collins said. It could, however, be disastrous to many farmers who escaped the floods.

USDA’s crop condition data for Aug. 1, based on the largest survey ever conducted by the department for a monthly report, showed nearly 23 million acres of soybeans, corn and cotton in poor to very poor condition. While rain and floods inundated the Midwest, drought hurt crop prospects in the Southeast.

The report found that 2.8 million acres of soybeans, corn and cotton were in poor shape in North and South Carolina, Alabama and Georgia.

″Any crop needs a certain number of days of sunshine or heat or it doesn’t grow well,″ said Jim Porterfield, assistant director of national resources of the American Farm Bureau in Chicago. ″Corn got planted late in many areas, and soybeans as well, because of spring rains. It was too wet to get into the field and some got planted not at all.″

Twenty or 30 years ago, those conditions would have had a devastating impact on crops. With modern equipment, however, farmers were able to take maximum advantage of the few good days available for planting.

″We worry about it every year,″ Porterfield said of the prospect of early frost. ″That’s part of being a farmer.″

The 1993 corn crop will be down about 20 percent from last year - but 1992 was an all-time high for corn, both in yield and production. This year will actually have a better yield than 1991, which was more average.

Here are the farm bureau’s estimates about production at risk from early frost in the major producing states:

Corn: Iowa, 320 million bushels of 1,253 million; Illinois, 150 out of 1,646; Minnesota, 230 of 459; Nebraska, 230 of 949; South Dakota, 75 of 179; Wisconsin, 95 of 268.

Soybeans: Illinois, 50 of 365; Iowa, 120 of 280; Minnesota, 60 of 135; Nebraska, 20 of 86; North Dakota, 2 of 10; South Dakota, 18 of 35; Wisconsin, 20 of 20.

Most farm economists agree: While cropland under water got most of the attention this summer, there was considerable damage done by excessive moisture in other areas.

″If your farm was one that got hit by flooding,″ said David Miller, an agricultural economist with the farm bureau, ″it could be a total disaster. Parts of Iowa, southern Minnesota and eastern and South Dakota were not flooded but they were excessively wet and experienced substantial crop damage. The soil was extremely saturated; growth was really slow or prevented you from planting planting.″

But in other areas, central Illinois, central Indiana and most of Ohio, crops look good.

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