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Iowa farmers unsure what’s next after winds flatten corn

Aug 25, 2020, 4:15 PM | Updated: 5:12 pm
Iowa corn soy crops...
Rod Pierce walks through a cornfield damaged in the derecho earlier this month, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, near Woodward, Iowa. Pierce is among hundreds of Iowa farmers who are still puzzling over what to do next following the Aug. 10 derecho, a storm that hit several Midwestern states but was especially devastating in Iowa as it cut west to east through the state's midsection with winds of up to 140 mph. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

WOODWARD, Iowa (AP) — Usually this time of year, someone could get lost in the tightly packed sea of corn that surrounds farmer Rod Pierce’s house in central Iowa.

But two weeks after a rare storm tore a 40-mile-wide (65-kilometer-wide) swath through Iowa, it’s more like a lush, thick mat of flattened cornstalks stretching in all directions, far past Pierce’s farm.

“It’s just unbelievable, is probably the word. I don’t know how else to describe it,” he said.

Pierce is among hundreds of Iowa farmers who are still puzzling over what to do after the Aug. 10 derecho, a storm that hit several Midwestern states but was especially devastating in Iowa as it cut through the middle of the state with winds of up to 140 mph (225 kph). The National Weather Service described the storm’s intensity as a “once-in-a-decade occurrence in this region.”

The storm damaged crops in just over one-third of Iowa’s 99 counties, according to early estimates. Iowa is typically a national leader in corn and soybean production, and farmers in the worst-hit counties had planted 3.6 million acres of corn and 2.5 million acres of soybeans.

Not all the damaged crops have been ruined, and even those like Pierce who saw the worst of the devastation might be able to salvage some kind of harvest. But for many it will be a devastating end to a season that at one time seemed so promising. After years of trade wars, exports were increasing to China, an increase in driving was raising demand for corn-based ethanol, and Iowa was expected to approach a record for the crop.

For those in the storm’s path, much of that optimism has been blown away.

“It’s discouraging, I guess. Frustrating. We had a nice looking crop,” said Pierce who began farming in 1973.

Or as Mark Licht, an Iowa State University assistant professor and crop specialist, put it: “A good portion of the state had a really good crop before the storm. Now there are farmers outside the storm path who have a really good crop.”

Licht said the extent of damage to Iowa corn is probably worse than during a 2012 drought. Iowa’s crop was reduced by about 20%.

Soybeans — which grow on bushy plants closer to the ground — seem to have fared far better than the corn.

Corn damage varies. Some fields battered by hail and wind have nothing remaining but sticks poking out of the ground. Others are oddly flattened with 8-foot-tall (2.4-meters-tall) stalks lying in the dirt, broken off or bent so severely that the plants are turning brown. Many in the path of the storm’s strongest blasts still stand but lean eastward at severe angles.

About 95% of Iowa’s corn crop was insured. The mix of damage means insurance adjusters will write off some fields as a total loss while others will harvest something, but much less than they had expected.

Last week, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds requested a disaster declaration from U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for more than half of the state, a move that would offer federal help, including immediate access to low-interest Farm Service Agency emergency loans. The USDA also is considering other steps.
Reynolds said Tuesday that Perdue is expected to visit Iowa next week to see the damage.

“There’s some assistance there. We’ll see what this federal disaster proclamation amounts to and what the criteria is to meet that,” said Dave Struthers, who farms 1,100 acres with his brother and parents in central Iowa near Collins, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Des Moines.

Although Struthers’ corn is leaning at a 45-degree angle, he expects he’ll be able to harvest it. The yield will drop through by 15 bushels, or more an acre. His farm also lost two 8,000-bushel grain bins and buildings housing 800 hogs, which were moved a few miles away.

Licht, the Iowa State professor, said he’s concerned about the physical and emotional toll such losses could mean for farmers.

He advised them to take it easy during this fall’s harvest, especially those who may be asked to try to harvest bent cornstalks. It may be a tedious process that could require special equipment. There’s additional risk in damaging a combine, which can cost as much as $500,000 to buy and tens of thousands of dollars to repair.

Farmers outside the wind-damaged area are likely to see a boost in crop prices if the damage turns out to be as significant as expected. Consumers likely won’t see much difference in grocery prices.

Struthers said it’s a reminder that farming is a gamble.

“We are the eternal optimists always looking for things to get better and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t,” Struthers said.

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