“We have never seen a year like this, so dry so early.” This from Larry Miller, director of the Franklin County Farm Bureau.
And when Miller says “never,” it is like 41-years worth. That's how long he's been farming. The veteran agrarian was pondering the current devastating, killing heat wave that has blanketed the Midwest and other areas of the nation.
Oddly enough, 2012 began on a high note in the fields.
“We got out and into the fields early,” Miller said. “There were ideal conditions and we had a good wheat harvest by the first of June, even May. Then it turned into a nightmare.” Farmers throughout much of the nation face the same problem because of the brutal three-digit temperatures that are also taking a toll in human life. “We know the corn crop is gone,” Miller said. He referred longingly to previous years when tillers of the soil had 17-20 inches of rain to this point to work with.
Miller said that at the end of May the farmers told themselves that if they get a June rain they might salvage a good year, at least on soybeans. They waited. And waited. But it didn't happen and now no one is very optimistic. Could a big rain save the soybeans? “We just don't know,” Miler admitted. “I've never seen anything like this before. There is no question it is the driest, earliest.”
Cattle, too, are in desperate shape. Miller has a small herd of cows which he considered selling. But he will keep them and struggle through. “There won't be any grass (for grazing) until spring,” he said.
As to the business outlook for farmers, Miller is not pessimistic. “Normally, one bad year will not kill a farm business. Also, today's farmers have an advantage over previous generations because they can buy crop insurance in many forms," he said.
Of course, the shortages do mean that the prices go higher on crops that survive. But that is a small consolation to farmers that have faced some of the hottest, driest weather in recent memory.
Cattle farmers feel the heat
Franklin County farmers and cattle raisers are among the hardest hit in the worst drought in memory for most local agrarians. A combination of extremely hot and dry weather in Illinois made the first half of 2012 the sixth driest on record, according to the Illinois State Water Survey. Statewide rainfall averaged just 12.6 inches for the period of January through June, nearly 7 inches below normal. Every month this year has had above normal temperatures and the statewide average of 52.8 degrees for the past sixth months is the warmest on record.
Raising cattle locally is going a little better than trying to grow crops. West Frankfort farmer/rancher George Tomlinson said, “The cows handle it better than we do.” Bovine appetites diminish as the heat batters the area. “All the animals need is water, a little food and shade and they'll be alright.”
Page 2 of 3 - Tomlinson is better off than many ranchers who are trying to fatten the animals for market. The weight gains during the intense drought were not appreciable. He raises cattle primarily for breeding purposes. The main problem is grazing access. The brutal arid heat has caused the grass to become scarce. Normally the cattle graze until the grass disappears. “Normally we don't feed them hay until September, but they are getting that diet now, some for nearly two months.”
Oddly enough, the wilting crops that will take a financial toll on the farmers in 2012 might benefit the animals. It's possible farmers will bale the failed corn crop for cattle feed so the herd will still get three square meals a day.
In the paradox that is farming, the failed crops will drive up the prices of the product and therefore they can sell fewer bushels to make as much money. Currently corn is selling at about $8 per bushel and soybeans $12. But there are no good aspects to the current record-setting drought. “This (weather) is a disaster,” Tomlinson said. “But when you make your living depending on the weather, you take it in stride. It is part of the game.” There could be a light at the end of the tunnel. “We could still save the soybeans if we would get some rain. It wouldn't take much to save the beans.”
“Agriculture is the backbone of Illinois’ economy, and as we’ve seen today, severe drought conditions are devastating crop production throughout the state,” Gov. Pat Quinn said. “As this drought continues, we are committed to using all the tools we have to help impacted farmers and communities bounce back.”
Havoc in ballfields
Temperatures soared, crops were dying and there was no sign things are going to improve any time soon.
Southern Illinois became southern Arizona.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Frankfort Community Park where the usually pristine baseball and softball field looked like something from an apocalypse film.
"In the past, we would have lots of games rained out during a season, sometimes for two weeks at a time," Greg Woolard said. "That definitely wasn't the case this year. I think that was the only good thing that the weather brought us. It's been quite a while since I've seen the fields get this bad."
Park Board President Brett Dunston echoed Woolard's thoughts.
"It's practically nothing out there," he said. "Those kids have been playing in dust because it's drier than a bone. It's just miserable what the drought has done and the grass has been dead since June."
If you walked across the softball fields and the Little League fields, grass was quite sparse. It only existed in small patches in the corners of the outfield and even then it was not even green. It was more of a light gray that makes one think that the field was human-like and had actually died.
Page 3 of 3 - The baseball fields were in a little better shape, but not by much. They became mostly brown and gray, but they had little islands of green along the bullpens and in various spots in the outfield, sort of like an oasis. On one part of the outfield, tiny pieces of grass, maybe four or five stems poked out of the dirt and further giving off the impression that you are standing in a desert. It makes one think a tumbleweed is going to blow by any second.
These conditions are certainly not the fault of the Recreation Department crew who tirelessly worked to make sure the fields were fit to play on and at least presentable. Unfortunately, Mother Nature just didn't want to cooperate this summer causing the department to take on some heavy costs.
"The worst part is the dirt," Woolard said. "When that wind picks up, it can blow it quite a ways. We end up having to buy more dirt to build up the pitcher's mound and the rest of the diamond."
Woolard says the department had to buy five loads of dirt this year at $300 per load, which is something they haven't had to do for years.
As far as the grass goes, well you may as well forget about that. The department has stuck a fork in trying to keep that alive and began focusing on the flowers around the park.
"We try to water the flowers daily and it's frustrating because the very next day, they are completely dry," Recreation Department groundskeeper Robin Smothers said. "The grass is done. It's completely dry and dusty. Occasionally, weeds will come up and we'll try to get rid of them, but it's just no use at this point and I don't think it's going to get any better."
On the plus side, come October the fields will be deserted and they can recuperate and look better next year.
"It was a rough year for the fields, but it'll be over soon," Woolard said. "All we can do is hope that we have better conditions in the spring."