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Persistent Wet Weather Interferes With Midwest Farmers' Planting


Across the Midwest, most farmers would normally be seeing their plants emerge from the soil by now, but persistent wet weather forced many of them to just give up on planting. The record slow pace for crops like corn and soybeans is rippling through the farming economy.

Nick Evans of member station WOSU has the story.

NICK EVANS, BYLINE: By the middle of June, corn seedlings should be up and growing in the fields. In U.S. Department of Agriculture figures going back 20 years, the slowest show 92% of plants had emerged by now. But this year, only 79% have started growing; in Ohio, it's just 50%. On his farm in Perrysburg, Ohio, Kris Swartz is standing in front of a muddy puddle next to a field swaying with knee-high stalks of rye.

KRIS SWARTZ: When that puddle there dries up and gets white on top and cracks, this farmer's ready to farm - and it hasn't dried up all year. The one day I did plant, it almost got dry - almost, but not quite.

EVANS: Swartz isn't exaggerating. He's had only one day this year when it was dry enough to get into his fields. He's planted only about a tenth of his 2,000 acres. Shane Vetter hasn't planted a single seed.

SHANE VETTER: We've actually tidied up the corn planter and we've put it away. And the corn seed's actually gone. It's been gone for a week or better. You know, we just made that decision that nothing was going to be ready in time. And then the forecast just kept dealing us more rain. So the good Lord actually made that a pretty easy decision.

EVANS: It's gotten so bad that Ohio's governor, Mike DeWine, requested federal disaster aid; Michigan followed suit shortly after. Throughout the Midwest, a steady string of rainy days derailed farmers' plans. Normally, weather delays might push them toward growing a crop like soybeans instead. But farmers have been reluctant to make the switch in the middle of a trade war with China. That means lots of acres will remain fallow, and those that are planted will likely produce smaller yields.

Iowa State ag economist Chad Hart says a diminished crop will put economic pressure on the rest of the ag economy.

CHAD HART: Lower production tends to mean higher crop prices. And for anybody who's using the corn, the soybeans, the wheat, it means they're paying higher prices in order to obtain that. And so there is this spillover effect.

EVANS: While agriculture is increasingly a global industry, the first links in the chain start close to home. Fewer farmers plowing their fields cuts into revenue, not just for them but for entire towns dependent on their livelihood - add to that the plight of local seed and fertilizer merchants, as well as farm equipment dealers. Without crops to sell, farmers will likely put off major equipment purchases. As stocks dry up without new grain to replenish them, Swartz says the cost of feed will rise.

SWARTZ: Our livestock producers in this area are really going to struggle because there's not the availability of a feed or forage for their animals. And once they liquidate herds, that doesn't come back quickly or easily. And, you know, they're my best customer.

EVANS: Farmers warn that today's pain will likely ripple throughout the economy over the next year or more as the higher cost of grain shows up in a wide array of consumer goods - everything from meat and cereals, to gasoline that mixes in ethanol.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Evans in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARISA ANDERSON'S "PULSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Evans