Drought-weary farmers await Isaac's remnants

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By JIM SUHR, Associated Press

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Indiana farmer John Kolb normally would welcome storms that could provide his crops with badly needed water in this summer of drought. Instead, he and other Corn Belt farmers are nervously watching the forecast as Hurricane Isaac's remnants slog their direction, concerned they could end up getting too much of a good thing.

The reason for their worry: Strong winds could topple corn stalks already severely weakened by the nation's worst drought in two generations, and a possible deluge could muddy the fields and slow bringing in whatever crop is still salvageable.

"We could really use the moisture, but I don't want wind," Kolb, 41, said from the 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans he farms with his dad and uncle in southeastern Indiana's Franklin County and the adjacent Butler County in Ohio. "The corn is just so weak. It's been so dry that it kind of cannibalized itself. It fed off itself to try to stay alive and it wouldn't take a whole lot to blow it down.

"That would make it a tangled mess, and that's pretty hard to harvest."

Isaac has lost strength since coming ashore late Tuesday as a Category 1 hurricane, with 80 mph winds near the mouth of the Mississippi River. But it's still expected to provide a dousing for much of the nation's midsection — from Arkansas north to Missouri and into a corner of Iowa, then east through Illinois and Indiana to Ohio — in coming days. Rainfall totals could reach up to 7 inches, according to a U.S. Drought Monitor weekly update Thursday.

In Arkansas, farmers scrambled to bring in as much of their corn and rice as they could before Isaac's wind and rain reached the state. With the storm blowing Thursday into southeast Arkansas, growers had to leave their fields and begin the wait to see what the storm will do to their crops.

Isaac's encroachment came as the latest weekly update by a drought-tracking effort credited recent rains in the central U.S. with easing the dryness, even if it was far too late for some corn crops.

The newest U.S. Drought Monitor map from the University of Nebraska's National Drought Mitigation Center showed that the section of the continental U.S. in the worst two categories of drought — extreme and exceptional — remained relatively unchanged at 23.2 percent as of Tuesday.

But thanks to rains last weekend, the amount of Iowa — the nation's biggest corn producer — in the two worst drought classifications slid by 9 percentage points to 58.3 percent. Illinois saw a 7 percentage point drop-off to 69.6 percent as Kansas' numbers fell 6 points to 90.1 percent. Missouri's status improved nominally, slipping nearly 2 percentage points to 97.4 percent. Indiana's portion in the two highest drought conditions rose, up 2.1 percentage points to 39.22 percent.

Still, the rains may not be enough to help the corn crop.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Monday that 52 percent of that crop was listed as being in poor or very poor shape, more than double the status of 19 percent in those two categories at this time last year. Soybeans, which could benefit from more rains because it's earlier in the growing season than corn, were faring only slightly better, with 17 percent of that crop described as being very poor while an additional 21 percent was poor, the USDA said. A year ago, just 15 percent of the nation's soybeans were in those categories.

The USDA said just 6 percent of the nation's corn harvest was completed as of Monday, three times the average at this time of year over the previous four growing seasons.

In northeastern Missouri's Knox County, Kenneth Burkholder figures any rain from Isaac won't help his 1,200 acres of corn. Having harvested 20 percent of that crop, he envisions reaping nothing from some acres to 20 bushels from others, maybe 50 if he's lucky. In good years, he'd get well more than 100.

His 800 acres of still-developing soybeans desperately could use the tropical storm's help.

"We're dry as a bean. If we don't get rain, the bean crop will fall flat on its face," he said as Missouri's crops as a whole languished. The USDA, in its Monday update, said a whopping 85 percent of the state's corn crop was poor or very poor, while 78 percent of Missouri soybeans were listed as equally bad.

Near Mechanicsburg in central Illinois, Kenneth Metcalf is making plans to start harvesting the nearly 600 acres of corn he's growing with his son, provided Isaac doesn't blow it down.

"I don't want the wind," said Metcalf, 75. "This corn is not at all that stable to start with, and we don't need 50- or 60-mile-per-hour winds. It would just break the stalks off, and it'd be a hell of a mess."

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Associated Press writer Rick Callahan contributed to this report from Indianapolis.

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