America’s Food-to-Fuel Gamble
Biofuels and Bad Weather: How Bad Has The Weather Been For Corn This Year?
Due to the La Niña weather phenomenoni this year, states across the Corn Belt (see USDA map showing top corn-producing states) experienced record-setting wet weather in the winter and spring while forecasts for a drought this summer remain troubling. Illinois, for example, the second largest corn-producing state in the country providing 17 percent of the nationwide total, had the third wettest winter on record6 and in February, received the second highest rainfall since 1895.7 The Mississippi River, which runs through the heart of the Corn Belt, saw its highest recorded flood level since 1973 this year in April.8 As of June 9th, farms in Iowa, Illinois, and Nebraska – the top three corn producing states providing 47 percent of the nationwide total - got as much as 12 inches of rain in the last 30 days - four times the normal amount for 30-day rainfall totals.9
In response to these weather and crop production reports from the Corn Belt, the USDA revised its forecasts for the national 2008 corn crop on June 10th announcing that yield projections were cut to 148.8 bushels per acre, down 5 bushels from last year and the lowest since 2005-2006. Reflecting the slow planting progress, slow crop emergence, and persistent heavy rainfall across the Corn Belt, the USDA announced that corn production would fall this year to 11.73 billion bushels, down 10.2 percent from last year’s 13.07 billion bushels.10
In Iowa, the nation’s number one corn-producing state, providing 19 percent of the total, the Des Moines River (a key tributary to the Mississippi River) is expected to come within 6 inches of its record height (by the second week of June) which it reached during the historic floods of 1993.11 Some fields in Iowa received more than 8 inches of rain in the first week of June, representing approximately one-third of the normal rainfall for the entire year.12 The effect of this extreme weather in Iowa is already being felt. According to the USDA, as of June 1st, about 74 percent of the Iowa corn crop had emerged from the ground, compared with 92 percent a year ago and the previous five-year average of 89 percent.13 As of June 8th, 89 percent of the crop emerged versus the previous five-year average of 98 percent emergence. The USDA expects that part of this crop will have to be replanted due to flooding.14 The USDA Crop Progress Report released June 16, 2008 rated corn conditions at only 49 percent good or excellent, down from 56 percent good or excellent on June 9th.15
As for Illinois, State Climatologist Dr. Jim Angel explains in his June 9th press statement:
“For the fifth time this year, the monthly statewide precipitation has been above average, resulting in the third wettest January – May since 1895... Average June rainfall is around 4 inches in central Illinois and many stations have already reached or exceeded that threshold... Not surprisingly all the heavy rains have led to saturated soils and water standing in many fields… Meanwhile, May statewide temperatures averaged 59 degrees, 4 degrees below average… This continued a pattern of below-average temperatures since February. This was the 18th coolest February-May on record at 44 degrees, 3 degrees below average.” 16
Some crop experts in Illinois are suggesting that a 10 to 12 percent loss in corn yields is an optimistic figure at this point given the heavy rains taking their toll.17 A large number of farmers in Illinois were forced to replant hundreds of acres due to 5 inches of rain in the first week of June.18 Corn yields could be cut by as much as 50 percent in some areas. According to the USDA,19 as of June 8, 95 percent of the corn crop was planted, 88 percent had emerged, and the average height was 7 inches. In contrast, the five-year averages are 99 percent planted, 98 percent emerged, and 17 inch average height. As of the June 16 USDA Crop Progress report, the corn crop conditions were rated as 5 percent very poor, 12 percent poor, 35 percent fair, 43 percent good, and 5 percent excellent.20
Nebraska, the 3rd largest corn producing state in the country supplying 11 percent of the national total, experienced strong winds, excess rain, and hail which have been damaging crops and impeding the planting process. For the week ending June 8, temperatures ranged from highs in the lower 90s to low in the 40s. An average of over an inch of rain fell over the state of Nebraska, with the Central, East Central, and North Central districts averaging over three inches of rain. Some areas in Nebraska have received as much as 14 inches of rain in the three weeks preceding June 11. Some fields even experienced a 100 percent crop loss.21 Corn conditions in Nebraska were rated at 2 percent very poor, 6 percent poor, 27 percent fair, 56 percent good, and 9 percent excellent. This is significantly worse than last year, according to the Nebraska Field Office of the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, when 75 percent of the corn crop had a good or excellent rating compared to this year’s 65 percent.22 As of June 8, the USDA estimates that 95 percent of the Nebraska crop emerged versus the previous five-year average of 98 percent emergence at this time. 23
i As of February 2008, scientists at National Weather Service report that we are in a La Nina phase of the ENSO weather phenomenon given the sea surface temperatures around the equator were more than two degrees C cooler than average. The El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon occurs when sea surface temperatures are above or below normal. Half the time, there is neither El Nino nor La Nina in the Pacific Ocean. In the last 10 years, there have been five ENSO events: three El Nino and two La Nina events. The last La Nina was in 2000/1.