The stunted corn in Randy Schaefer's field northwest of Fort Wayne is a pitiful shadow of what he expects to see in a stand of corn.
Many stalks stand only about waist high instead of far taller than a man, as they would in a good year. Where every stalk should carry a thick, heavy ear of corn, a majority of them this year have developed no ears. The ears that have appeared are puny; some are barely bigger than a finger.
There was a crowd around Schaefer on Wednesday morning under a tent pitched at the edge of a field of corn growing on land his family has farmed since his grandfather bought it more than 60 years ago. They included other farmers, local and state officials, even an undersecretary from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The topic was the punishing drought that continues across much of the nation, a drought rated as extreme in much of northeast Indiana.
"I'd rather have something I was proud of to show you," Schaefer told those who came to his farm. Instead, he has a corn crop that is largely beyond recovery, although rain that arrives soon might fatten the kernels that have developed.
Nine hundred of the more than 2,000 acres he and his father farm are in corn. Pressed to predict his yield, he guesses 50 bushels an acre. In a good year, he could raise 180-190 bushels an acre.
His soybeans – about 1,000 acres – also are in grave jeopardy. Unless he gets significant rain within about three weeks, that yield will be terribly small, too. But there's still hope for the beans. "Beans reproduce over a longer period of time," he said. With enough rain, he said, "we could get two-thirds of a bean crop."
Schaefer opened his farm Wednesday as a backdrop for a visit from Undersecretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse, who has a farm in Delaware with his uncle and nephew. Scuse came to hear farmers' concerns about the impact of the drought, and the top message he delivered was simple: Congress needs to pass a farm bill.
Just last week, the USDA declared more than 1,000 U.S. counties to be likely eligible for disaster assistance because of drought effects. The drought – the worst in decades – makes passage of a farm bill particularly important. Scuse offered two key reasons.
First, disaster-relief programs that could help farmers bridge the gap between their losses and crop-insurance payouts ended last year. The revival of those or similar programs depends on the enactment of a new farm bill.
Second, without some of the certainty on federal payments in support of agriculture, securing financing will be more difficult for farmers.
"The banking industry is going to want to know what programs are available and what kind of payments you're going to receive next year," he said.
Despite the seeming disaster the drought appears to be for many farmers in northeast Indiana, Scuse sought to reassure livestock producers that they would not necessarily be hammered by record prices for feed. He pointed out that because so many acres were planted in corn in the U.S. this year, the Department of Agriculture is still forecasting that this year's corn crop will be the third largest in history.