Farmers, gardeners, traders waiting and watching for rain relief
BY STEFANO ESPOSITO, DAVID ROEDER, SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY AND TONY GRAF June 13, 2012 8:24PM
Martin Saldana tills the dry soil at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in Chicago, Illinois, Wednesday, June 13, 2012. | Joseph P. Meier~Sun-Times Media
Updated: July 15, 2012 3:28PM
It’s made for glorious grilling and sunbathing weather, but the unusually dry start to June — the second-least rainy on record — has left crops withering in parched fields all across the region, a situation fast approaching the critical stage for anxious farmers.
“You can see there’s a lot of concern in their eyes,” said Mark Schneidewind, manager of the Will County Farm Bureau. “If we don’t get that rain this week, it could be a very lean year for farmers.”
The thunder clouds predicted to roll across the region this weekend typically deliver spotty weather — a deluge in one area, a few pitiful raindrops in another.
And the longer-term forecast isn’t any more encouraging: Except for a slight chance of rain Monday, there is no significant precipitation in the forecast for the next seven days, according to the National Weather Service.
Just how dry has it been this June? In a normal year, we’d see about 1.8 inches of rain through the first two weeks of June. So far this month, a measly 0.01 inch has fallen in the Chicago area.
Across Cook, Will, Kendall and Kane counties, young corn and soybean plants are struggling to poke out of the cracked earth. The plants simply aren’t mature or strong enough to survive such adverse conditions if they continue much longer, local farmers say. The situation has been made worse by a lack of winter snow.
“I’m pretty optimistic, but it is bad right now,” said Manhattan farmer Dave Kestel. “There are cracks in the soil, which can damage the roots.”
Farmers know the weather is cyclical and there’s not much they can do about it.
“I’m trying not to worry, but Mother Nature is beating me up left and right,” said Jeff Haas, a Lockport/Homer Glen farmer. “Every day that goes by is more money out of pocket.”
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, most of Illinois — including Cook and Will counties — has “abnormally dry conditions,” but has not reached the moderate or severe drought stages that Southern Illinois is enduring.
At the Chicago futures markets, drought has been the cause of higher prices for incoming crops. Corn prices have rallied about 8 percent this month at the Chicago Board of Trade after falling steeply, about 12 percent, during the second half of May. When poor growing weather cuts into expected yields, prices rise because there is less crop to meet demand.
But drought is a more immediate concern for farmers than for grocery shoppers, as major food companies long ago locked in prices.
Steve Georgy, senior manager at the McHenry-based trading firm Allendale Inc., said lack of rain has moved to the top of the market’s concerns. “It seems like some relief is on the way for portions of the Corn Belt, but people are in a ‘show me the rain’ mode,” he said. A weekly U.S. Agriculture Department survey of crop conditions has tracked the drought’s effects. In a report issued Monday, it said 66 percent of the nation’s corn crop was in good to excellent condition, down from 72 percent a week earlier.
The lack of rain is also taking a toll on local gardens. Typically hardy shrubs are turning brown and — absent a sprinkling from a watering can — leaves on flowering plants are wilting.
“The weather is wearing me out because of the drought,” said Nancy Carroll, 58, a member of the Naperville Garden Club for 22 years. “I’ve done a lot of mulching ... . Mulch soaks up the water and holds moisture for the plant when I water in the morning. I also replaced tender plants with drought-resistant ones. While the hot weather is great for pools and other activities, it isn’t for flowers.”
Hoses, sprinklers — even fake grass — are in big demand at some area gardening and hardware stores.
Sean Wunderlich, a landscape designer at Medina Lawncare on North Cicero in the city, said the company has seen a jump in calls from customers seeking dry-weather lawn care tips and plants that can stand up to the arid conditions.
“They’re asking for native plants that can handle our weird weather, and plants that can adapt to drought,” Wunderlich said.
Contributing: Reporters Emily Morris, Janelle Walker, Matt Brennan, Megan Maginity