News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 3, 2012

Heat, drought cause stress

State’s corn crop is vulnerable

By Maureen Hayden
CNHI Statehouse Bureau

INDIANAPOLIS — The suffocating heat and drought plaguing much of Indiana aren’t exactly apocalyptic, but they are wreaking havoc across the state.

The ground is so dry that most of Indiana is under an open burn ban and many local communities are canceling fireworks festivals in fear that a small spark could set the parched fields ablaze.

It’s not just hot and dry. It’s so hot and dry there are farmers in southwest Indiana that have already plowed under fields because their corn was dying, and more may follow suit. It’s so hot and dry that livestock feed prices are skyrocketing to record levels, triggering what will likely be higher meat prices for consumers.

It’s so hot and dry that wood-boring insects are lethally feasting on water-starved trees, even those that have been around for decades. It’s so hot and dry that using a water sprinkler on your lawn may be wasted effort since your grass may already be dead, not just dormant.

It’s so hot and dry that we should be hoping for a hurricane.  

“It’s bad to say it but that’s what we need,” said Austin Pearson, a research assistant at the Indiana State Climate Office at Purdue University. “We need a hurricane or tropical storm to come up through the Gulf of Mexico, through the eastern half of Texas and ride up through the Midwest.”

Bringing with it, of course, a big soaking rain that would last several days to compensate for months of little more than spit.

Summer just arrived two weeks ago, but it’s already record-making. Across the state, rain levels are down 5 to 10 inches where they usually are.

“We are sitting in the state with the worst crop conditions of any of the major (agricultural) states,” said Chris Hurt, a Purdue agricultural economist. “We are at the center of the drought at this point.”

Ninety-nine percent of the state is experiencing “abnormally dry” or drought-like conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. More than 87 percent of the state is officially in a drought. Nearly one-quarter of the state is experiencing “extreme drought.”

Hurt said that last number will get bigger, short of that torrential storm that Pearson would like to call forth.

“We’re likely to be in a drought for rest of the growing season,” Hurt said. “The only question now is ‘Does it get worse?’”

It’s already bad for Indiana farmers. The drought and a wave of unrelenting heat is putting big stress on crops and farmers. Crops that were planted early this spring are in a growth stage where they’re sucking up moisture from the soil faster than it can be replaced, even with a return to normal rainfall, Hurt said.

Indiana’s corn crop is particularly vulnerable. The extreme temperatures and lack of rain are interfering with pollination, which is critical. Hurt said farmers in southwest Indiana have seen complete pollination failure in many of their corn fields. “That’s the end for them,” Hurt said. “Those fields are gone.”

The big fear is the 2012 drought will come close or surpass the record drought of 1988, which did feel world-ending to many farmers. “It’s causing a lot of fear and anxiety,” Hurt said. “We’re waiting for the catastrophe to come.”

Last month was the third driest June on record for the state and the driest on record for the state’s capital city of Indianapolis.

There was record-setting heat, with a string of 100-degree plus days in some southern Indiana counties.

It’s turned the green grass brown and in some parts of the state may have already killed some lawns completely, said Steve Mayer, a Purdue extension horticulturist.

It’s also turned that grass into tinder, which is why fire officials were dreading the July 4th holiday and all the errant fireworks shot off by amateurs and professionals alike. The burn bans imposed by local communities before the traditional July 4 festivities reached the Statehouse last week.

The state’s fireworks dealers protested decisions by mayors across the state who were temporarily barring the sale and/or use of fireworks, saying it violated a 2006 state law that prohibits such bans.

Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller was called on for his opinion; he said public safety came first and came down on the side of those mayors.

Gov. Mitch Daniels also weighed in, echoing Zoeller’s opinion and dismissing a question from a reporter about whether fireworks dealers, who’ve been complaining about lost sales, should be compensated. “No,” Daniels said. “We’re not in the bailout business.”

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.