Midwest Drought: Corn and Soybeans Suffer as Forecasters Expect No Quick Relief for Farmers

Jun 30, 2023

By Bennet Goldstein

A dusty Nick Stanek steps off his tractor after an evening of round baling hay. Conditions in La Farge, Wisconsin, are currently great for the crop, but not much else. The weather has been so dry, the grass crunches beneath Stanek’s feet.

Members of a three-generation farm family, he and his brother also grow corn and soybeans across 400 acres. But the weather isn’t cooperating like the siblings do.

A recent rain shower coaxed some of the soybeans to germinate, but it wasn’t enough; many have struggled to emerge from the "bone dry" ground.

"Of course, if we don't get any rain, our crop will be a complete loss," Stanek said.

Farmers are struggling all across the Corn Belt. Drought expanded rapidly throughout the Midwest in June — doubling within the first week after significantly less rainfall than normal. Forecasters say the region is not likely to get relief anytime soon.

Through September, arid conditions are expected to persist or even expand in eastern Iowa and Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin. More than 80 percent of corn and soybean crops in Illinois and Iowa — which together produce more than a quarter of the nation’s total — face drought conditions. Farmers are gritting their teeth as their crops dry up and deteriorate.


Todd Shea, with the NWS forecast office in La Crosse, Wisconsin, said dry weather can beget more dry weather "because you don’t have as much water around to add to the atmosphere which can help fuel thunderstorms."

Circumstances in Missouri are among the worst in the Midwest, with nearly 16 percent of the state under extreme drought.

"We’ve heard a lot from farmers and ranchers, especially ranchers who are having to sell off cattle before they wanted to because they don’t have enough food, hay, grass — things cattle usually feed off of — to sustain their herds," Fuchs said.

But Stan Nelson is holding onto optimism. The southeast Iowa native farms just 12 miles west of the Mississippi River near Burlington and serves as the first vice president on the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.

In his 40-plus-year career, this drought is one of the earliest he recalls. Nelson sees nearby producers irrigating their fields a month earlier than they typically do. And the variety of corn he plants is currently 10 to 20 inches shorter than it should be at this point in the growing season.

U.S. Geological Survey water gauges have measured below-normal streamflow throughout the upper Mississippi River basin compared to this time last year, including all-time lows at St. Cloud, Minnesota, on the Mississippi River, and in Valley City, Illinois, along the Illinois River. Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard has begun issuing safety advisories for barge traffic.

Low water has impacted the size and capacity of barge loads, driving up costs, according to Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of Waterways Council Inc., a national lobbying group. 

"But many in the industry believe there is the capacity to compensate for the inefficiencies in the near term," she said in an email. 

Dredging within the vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee, an occasional bottleneck for Mississippi River barge traffic, is expected to help.

It’s not possible to specifically attribute the current drought to climate change, scientists said, but it falls within a pattern of more extreme weather events.

Models project that in coming years both precipitation and precipitation variability will intensify in some Midwestern states.

The region overall could get wetter at longer timescales, according to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign researchers, with more intense month-to-month fluctuations, leading to increasingly frequent flooding or periods of drought.

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