Drought Begins to Worry Mid-Michigan Corn Growers

Jul 10, 2012

2012 is already unfolding as a year that many Michigan crop growers would like to forget. The state’s warmest March ever led to the destruction of almost all of its apples and tart cherries--a combined loss in the hundreds of millions of dollars. As summer settles in, a prolonged dry spell has thousands of mid- and south-Michigan corn growers praying for rain.

Catch a glimpse of a mid-summer cornfield and you may not need a rain gauge.  Okemos farmer Lane Cook describes his crop’s appearance as we overlook his 30 acre stand.

“They call it--it looks like pineapple at this stage here,” he says. “And when you seen ‘pineapple corn,’ it’s not good.”  

He’s referring to the noticeably thin look of corn leaves during dry spells. That helps conserve dwindling moisture. 

Cook’s grown a variety of crops since the 1970’s. He’s resigned to occasionally sharing news of a weak harvest with customers of his Jolly Road farm stand.

“’Where’s the berries at?’ And I go, ‘Well, they’re not there,” he explains. “We’re trying our best.’  They’ll start understanding.  I mean they can look out and see their yard and know that that’s dried up.  And we’re the same story here.”     

Northwest of Lansing, Jim Zook and I stand next to what he calls an “oniony” looking cornfield.  Zook is Executive Director of the Michigan Corn Growers Association.  He says ideal conditions include 22 inches of rain a year.  After about eight weeks of less than normal rainfall, he says crunch time for mid-Michigan’s crop is almost here.  

“For the next six weeks, the corn plant will have a need for half of that moisture, so even if we get 3 or 4 or 5 inches of rain, the ground is so dry that—provided that it didn’t come within a 20 minute period—the soil would actually be able to consume or take on that rainfall,” he says.

The Lansing area is situated just inside the driest part of the state, which stretches to the south and southwest. Areas accustomed to seven to nine inches of summer rain have logged two or less—well below 25% of normal. State climatologist Jeff Andresen says the landscape is reaching a point where dryness perpetuates itself.  

“Once the landscape dries out, that’s one of the sources for water vapor for precipitation,” he explains. “And so actually we see a persistence. And then, the old saying ‘drought begets drought.'”

It’s still too early to know for sure how much mid-Michigan corn growers will add to the state’s agricultural woes.  Higher yields are expected further north, where more rain has fallen.  Still, most in the business admit 2012 won't be a year of maximum yields. 

We’ll know more soon.  The critical period for corn pollination is the next two to three weeks.  Rain is essential to the process.  Back in Okemos, that’s left Lane Cook bracing for a hit.

“Another week and I’m sure we gotta be looking at, I’m sure a 50% loss,” he says.  “And this rain is really sporadic.  We were combining wheat this week 3 miles from Mason.  They got rain, an inch in town.  And we were outside of town 3 miles, running. Not a sprinkle.”

Cook says a 50% loss would be his biggest since the memorably long, hot summer of 1988.