As the drought in southern Wisconsin was re-classified as severe Thursday, much of the area's corn crop could be lost if significant rain doesn't fall here in the next seven days.
And it looks like neither Mother Nature nor Uncle Sam are going to help.
"It's pretty dire," said Landmark Services Cooperative agronomist Joe Speich, who estimated 2 to 3 inches of rain was needed in the next week to salvage southern Wisconsin's corn. Just 0.31 inches of rain has fallen since June 1, and the National Weather Service forecasts no drought-busting rains in the next week, although there is a 50 percent chance for showers and thunderstorms Friday and Saturday.
Speich said the lack of moisture has shut down the field corn's pollination process in the critical 10 days after it tassels.
"If it doesn't pollinate, there's no ear," Speich added. "That's the reason it can become a total loss. You've got that 10-day window and that's it."
Farmers without crop insurance are learning they have little chance of receiving any financial help because federal provisions for drought relief expired last year.
UW-Madison agriculture economist Paul Mitchell estimates about 31 percent of the state's corn acreage is not insured.
That includes 900 acres of field corn and 400 acres of sweet corn farmed on land near Beloit and Albany by Harvey Kopp, who said his losses could climb above $750,000 if it doesn't rain soon.
Kopp, 72, who got into the farming business 17 years ago after retiring from the insurance business, obviously knows the dangers of not having crop insurance. "I knew one of these years I was going to get my (expletive) burned," Kopp said. "I guess this is the year."
Farmers with crop insurance have been talking with experts to figure out how much damage their policies will cover. On Thursday, some 125 farmers met with crop insurance, other financial and ag specialists in Albany to learn about their few options. Another meeting was Thursday night in Monroe.
Hot, dry growing season
The severe drought designation is the first for this area since 2005, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Denny VanCleve.
It has the potential to create a big economic dent. Severe drought conditions cover less than 17 percent of the state, but that area produces a third of the state's corn, said Bob Oleson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Corn Growers Association.
This drought has the potential to be worse economically than the disastrous 1988 drought that gripped much of the state, said Bruce Jones, an agricultural economics professor at UW-Madison, though farmers with crop insurance will be able to at least recoup their costs.
"You never want to deal with something like this, but I'd say we're probably in a better situation thanks to the insurance purchased by the farmers than when we were kind of rolling the dice hoping for disaster response from Washington," Jones said.
Consumers will be affected, too. After livestock producers run out of feed because of the drought, they'll send their hogs and cows to market because they can't afford to feed them, Jones said. That will drive meat prices down initially but they'll rise later, along with milk prices, because of the resulting livestock shortage.
"This is a loss that is built into the system," Jones said. "The real strains in the short run will be felt by the farmers, but as we start to see reduced supplies of food products, we'll see higher food prices and that will take a pinch out of our disposable income. We'll bear some of that cost."
Looking for help
Not all crops are doing poorly. Speich said the recent wheat harvest was good and soybeans are doing surprisingly well.
But farmers aren't expecting to get any more cuts of hay. "It's dangerous for us to be out in the hayfields because it's so dry," Speich said. "There have been a lot of fires sparked by haybines."
VanCleve said there's a chance for rain in the area Saturday in the form of scattered thunderstorms, but "we're not expecting significant rainfall at all."
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi sent a letter of Gov. Scott Walker Thursday urging him to expedite a federal disaster declaration for the county that he said will allow farmers to access assistance.
But Heather Golz, a Badgerland Financial crop insurance specialist who spearheaded Thursday's meetings with farmers in Albany and Monroe, wasn't optimistic that farmers without crop insurance would be able to get financial help.
"Last I heard there wasn't any funding because the 2000 farm bill expired and the new farm bill hasn't been written yet," she said. "From what I heard as of this morning, there wasn't any funding for anything" for farmers without crop insurance.
That wasn't good news for Kopp. "I guess life will probably go on for me," he said. "It may not be as easy. But I will struggle through it, I guess."