Gene Logsdon: The Weather May Not Be the Problem

The Contrary Farmer

There are so many stark contrasts in the world today. These are times out of which great epics of literature ought to be written but aren’t. Society is too engrossed in drivel like whether badminton players in the Olympics were cheating or not. This summer, the driest in 50 years in parts of the Midwest, the Army Corps of Engineers is dredging deeper channels for the barges on the Mississippi River, which is at an all time low level. Just last year, rainfall in the eastern corn belt was at an all-time high and the Corps was desperately trying to control flooding on the Mississippi.

Weather-related contrasts are occurring here in my own Ohio backyard where it barely rained at all from May to August. Close to our farm stand two cornfields just across a narrow road from each other. One has nearly normal corn and the other (in one of the photos) has drought-stricken corn. I know personally both farmers who planted these two fields and both are very competent. The soil in both fields is the same. Fertilizer applied was about the same. Rainfall was the same. This contrast appears all over the county, all over the state, all over the Corn Belt. What is going on here?

Farmers and farm reporters and this blog have talked the question half to death. Our own local chapter of contrary farmers lists these possibilities for the difference in the two fields: time of planting, depth of planting, corn variety, seed bed preparation, plant population, and prayer. Since the two farmers involved both attend church regularly, I think we can rule out that last factor. Seed bed preparation was about the same, too.

I’ve yet to hear anyone claiming to have the definitive answer to the contrast, but here’s what we think happened. After an abnormally warm winter, the corn in the devastated field was planted in early April, a month before the optimum time in my opinion. This corn was planted shallow, about an inch deep where the soil was warmest and in anticipation of more rain. The corn came up quickly but with plenty of moisture then, the roots did not go deep in the soil. In late April and early May it did rain enough to keep farmers from planting the rest of their corn until late May, even into June. The corn not hurt by drought was planted late and without rain, it rooted more deeply in the soil. Unlike the early planted corn, ear development on the late corn was delayed until after the hundred degree weather in July. That meant it pollinated better and ear formation could still take advantage of the bit of early August rain we did get. Because our dense clay subsoils tend to hold moisture very well, the deep rooted corn survived, the shallow rooted corn did not. What do you think?

My own little bit of corn violated all the rules and for awhile I thought it was a goner. What follows sounds like bragging but I had nothing to do with it and can’t explain it. My corn is an old open-pollinated variety (Reid’s Yellow Dent) that usually is more susceptible to weather extremes than hybrid corn. I did not get around to planting it until the end of May. Planting depth was variable because the planter was a homemade job. Only the deeper planted kernels came up, those down two inches or deeper, which meant I had only two thirds of a stand. As a farmer friend remarked with a wry smile, “that corn is just good enough to make a poor crop.” But what came up just kept growing right through the drought as you can see from the other photo. It may be hard to find them in the picture, but there are four ears there over a foot long and they are still growing. The field had been in sod the five previous years which may be the real secret to it all, for all I know. I used no fertilizer or herbicides. I disked the sod three times and then once over with a rotary tiller. No moldboard plow or deep chiseling. The soil surface, without rain, remained covered with a mulch of dust from weed cultivation with a tiller. Dust mulch holds moisture much better than a hard dirt surface. Even in the driest time, a hoe would bring up moist soil. I planted pumpkins in the corn in the driest, hottest time of all and they grew like crazy. The corn leaves stayed green through it all and did not curl much from heat and dryness. Maybe that was because, with such a thin stand, each stalk had more moisture to draw on than would normally be the case. The ears silked out late, after the worst hot weather had past, and so pollination was better. And, bless me, Father, for I have sinned, I did not pray. I cussed at the drought all summer long.

Whatever you make of this, I think I know one thing for sure. We have not had one big drought. We have had many small local droughts. Not so far from here, around Bellefontaine, Ohio, rainfall through the summer was normal to excessive. (But overall, from January through mid-August, both areas were about the same. We got ours in late winter, they got theirs in summer when it was needed.) This was true over most of the Midwest. In many cases, human need or human greed or plain old human luck or lack of it, caused the bad effects of what we call drought, not just the weather. Because of high prices, corn was often planted on erosive hilly land that even in a normal year would hardly be profitable. My guess is that a lot of corn was planted too early, too shallow, too densely for this year. It was planted under the influence of 1211, the wettest year on record. Some of the crop loss was on land that had been stripped of its natural fertility and topsoil years ago, as can easily be seen by the difference between corn on rich black soil and on yellow eroded hillside soil in the same field. As William Albrecht writes in his essay “The Drought Myth” the problem is not the weather, it’s the way we farm.