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Heat and drought threaten some states’ corn crop

Corn crops, such as these in Illinois, struggle to grow under punishing conditions, troubling farmers across the Midwest.

Seth Perlman/Associated Press

Corn crops, such as these in Illinois, struggle to grow under punishing conditions, troubling farmers across the Midwest.

HARTFORD CITY, Ind. — Across a wide stretch of Midwestern farms, sweltering temperatures and a dearth of rain are threatening what was expected to be the nation’s largest corn crop in generations.

Already, some farmers in Illinois and Missouri have given up on parched and stunted fields, mowing them over. National specialists say parts of five corn-growing states, including Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio, are experiencing severe or extreme drought conditions. And in at least nine states, conditions in one-fifth to one-half of cornfields have been deemed poor or very poor, federal authorities reported this week, a notable shift from the high expectations just a month before.

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Crop insurance agents and agricultural economists are watching closely, a few comparing the situation with a devastating drought of 1988, when corn yields shriveled significantly, while some farmers have begun alluding, unhappily, to the dust bowl of the 1930s. Far more is at stake in the coming pivotal days: With the brief, delicate phase of pollination imminent in many states, miles and miles of corn will rise or fall on whether rain soon appears and temperatures moderate.

“It all quickly went from ideal to tragic,’’ said Don Duvall, a farmer in Illinois who has already watched two of his cornfields dry up and perish as others remain in peril. For him, it has been a virtually rainless month.

‘‘Every day that passes, more corn will be abandoned,’’ Duvall said. ‘‘But even if it starts raining now, there will not be that bumper crop of corn everyone talked about.’’

For farmers, especially those without insurance, the pressure mounts, they say, with each check on the morning weather forecast, with every stifling walk through a cloudless field. But the worries have quickly spread: Corn prices have risen on the Chicago Board of Trade in recent days on the likelihood of a smaller crop, as analysts consider the broader prospect of rising prices for food and ethanol production.

“You wake up every morning with that churning in your stomach,’’ said Eric Aulbach, a farmer here in Central Indiana, who gazed out across a field of corn.

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These plants are short, leaves curling, and a telltale pale yellow hue rising from stems. Down the road, another farmer’s cornfield is more shrunken, like rows of house plants better suited for a kitchen window.

Some specialists sound less pessimistic, saying the ultimate fate of the nation’s corn crop, the largest in the world, cannot be known until later in the summer, after pollination, when it is clear whether kernels or empty spaces fill the ears of corn and whether enough ears appear at all. They note that the driest, hottest conditions have steered clear of some key Corn Belt states, including Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and the western region of Iowa, the nation’s most prolific producer of corn.

“This is a moving target,’’ said Darrel L. Good, a professor emeritus of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ‘‘But what we know is this: There’s been some permanent and substantive yield reduction already, and we’re on the cusp, depending on the weather, of taking that down quite a bit more.”

In its most recent assessment, released Monday, the Department of Agriculture reported that 48 percent of corn crops nationally were in good or excellent condition, a drop from 56 percent of crops a week earlier. In some states, though, the circumstances were far worse. In Indiana, half of corn crops were designated poor or very poor, and in Illinois, among the nation’s top corn producers, only 26 percent of crops were considered good or excellent.

John Hawkins, a spokesman for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said those in the southernmost sections of his state ‘‘are close to or past that point of no return,’’ while in the other sections of the state, ‘‘there’s a lot of praying, it’s hanging on by a thread. These 100-degree temperatures are just sucking the life out of everything.’’

For much of the region, the next few weeks — as the plants’ tassels shed pollen to fertilize the silks and create kernels — are crucial. The expansive fields of soybeans are at risk in so much Midwestern heat, too, though they are seen as more resilient and able to pollinate later.

But a stressed, withered corn plant may not pollinate at all.

‘‘This is a very narrow window for corn, and there’s little room for error,’’ said Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist for the Department of Agriculture. ‘‘Whatever happens in that window, it is what it is — that cob is made or broken.’’

By midday Wednesday, temperatures hovered in the mid-90s in St. Louis and Indianapolis. While some weather forecasts suggested relief in the form of lower temperatures in parts of the Midwest next week, some rain, but not the deluge many here say they need, was predicted.

“All we can do is hope and wait,’’ Aulbach said, lifting a handful of Indiana soil and trying to shape it together in his fingers, only to watch it slip away, a dusty powder.

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