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Posted July 15, 2012 | comments 3 Comments

Corn farmers need rain, lots of rain

By Sally Voth -- svoth@nvdaily.com

The nation's drought is being felt among Virginia's corn farmers.

Essex and Washington counties have already inquired about applying for disaster assistance, according to Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services communications director Elaine Lidholm.

"Ordinarily, it's unheard of for people to be asking about drought declarations this early in the year because you have to have a minimum of 30 percent losses from your five-year average," she said late last week. "I heard from one farmer who said even with the rain we had this week, the corn is dead. He's just going to plow it under."

Normally, the VDACS doesn't start getting inquiries about disaster assistance until at least mid-August, Lidholm said. She added that some farmers plan to plow under their corn so that they can replant and hope for an early fall harvest.

"I think it's safe to say all parts of the state have been affected," Lidholm said.

The situation is still being assessed in Shenandoah County, Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Bobby Clark said.

"My opinion is, in Shenandoah County we're teetering on the edge of being significantly damaged by dry weather," he said. "To my knowledge, there's no major agronomic crops that have above a 25-percent damage. For corn, we need about another 4 or 5 inches of rain between now and August. It would [give] us a very good corn crop, hay would be good and pastures would start recovering. Apple trees would probably like it."

The thunderstorm that came through the county July 8 brought "tremendously" helpful rain, Clark said.

"We're starting to get where we could use some more," he added.

Rain fell on parts of the region Sunday, and there's a chance of thunderstorms in the forecast for mid-week, according to the National Weather Service's website. However, triple-digit temperatures are expected once again in the middle of the nation, according to the site. The National Weather Service has issued heat advisories for parts of the Great Plains and upper Midwest.

"Daytime temperatures are forecast to be 15 to 20 degrees above average throughout the region," according to the site.

Wesley Dellinger has planted about 140 acres of corn in the Edinburg and Conicville areas, and said the corn he planted in late April to early May is struggling, but the plants he sowed in June appear to be doing well.

"When that corn starts tasseling, that's when it needs rain," Dellinger said. "We need two or three days of good, soaking rain. These couple tenths [of an inch] we have been getting have been helping."

With about $12,000 invested in his corn crop this year -- the largest he's ever planted -- and another $5,000 worth of fertilizer, Dellinger said he hopes "everybody keeps praying for rain."

Fortunately for him, the price of harvested corn has increased significantly in recent years, to the point where Dellinger said farming it has finally become profitable.

In previous decades, the dry weather likely would've had much more devastating consequences for the corn crop, but changes in seed have helped farmers. The first commercial hybrid used dates back nearly 90 years, and with genetic engineering more recently, the crop has become hardier, the Associated Press reported last week.

Earlier this year, the U.S Department of Agriculture estimated that corn farmers would get 166 bushels per acre, but lowered that to 146 bushels last week in the wake of the drought.

Ten years ago, the average haul was 129 bushels per acre. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told the AP last week that despite the lack of precipitation and the need for disaster relief for some farmers, this year is expected to yield the third-largest corn crop in history.

"It is important to point out that improved seed technology and improved efficiencies on the farm have made it a little bit easier for some producers to get through a very, very difficult weather stretch," he said.

DuPont Pioneer senior research manager Jeff Schussler told the AP that today's corn hybrids can produce 50 percent more bushels per inch of water than their predecessors a half-century ago could. Genetic engineering has made the plants sturdier, too, he said.

Garry Niemeyer, president of the National Corn Growers Association, told the AP that "All these hybrids that have been produced in the last few years are built for drought tolerance so we have a little more hope that they will be able to withstand some of this heat, more so than they would have say 10 years ago."

Still, no corn right now can flourish if there is no rain for six weeks combined with 100 degree-plus temperatures, Purdue University agronomy professor Tony Vyn told the AP.

Extension Agent Clark has seen improved crop yields in recent years.

"For corn and soybeans, many farmers and myself have noticed that varieties in general seem to do much better under the same dry conditions [than in the past]," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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