A few scattered rain clouds brought some much-needed relief to the region last weekend, but for many of the farmers in Southern Illinois, the rain may have been too little and too late. This summer’s drought has been called the worst since 1988, and for farmers like Goreville’s Delbert Craig it has been devastating.
“This is the worst disaster I’ve ever seen,” Craig said. “My pastures are burnt up, the ponds have dried out, and I’ve lost a hundred percent of my corn.”
Craig, who turns 80 in August, is facing some difficult decisions. He has already been forced to start using hay that had been set aside for November just to keep his 27 head of cattle fed. With his corn crop dying out, he will either have to sell some of his cattle or take out loans to help buy as much as 1,000 bushels of grain to make it through the winter.
It is a dilemma being shared by farmers across the country, as the US Department of Agriculture has designated 1,234 counties in 31 states as disaster areas due to the drought. A recent study by the USDA rated 45 percent of America’s corn crops as “very poor to poor,” while the amount of corn rated “good to excellent” has dropped to 26 percent. Soybeans have shared a similar fate, with only 31 percent rated “good to excellent” and 35 percent rated “very poor to poor.” As much as 55 percent of America’s farmland has been rated “very poor to poor” as well.
Craig’s farm was one of three in Southern Illinois visited by officials from the USDA on July 26. Karis Gutter, a Deputy Under Secretary with the USDA, and Rick Graden, the Executive Officer of the FSA in Illinois, made the rounds, visiting farms in Pulaski County and Cobden as well as Goreville. The visits were part of an initiative created by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and President Obama to assess the impact of damage in drought-stricken areas and to formulate plans of action to let farmers know what kind of assistance is available.
“It’s tough everywhere,” Gutter told the crowd at Craig’s farm. “Resources are limited on both the state and federal levels.”
Gutter said the USDA has more ways to help than other government agencies because of the many different departments that fall under their umbrella, but he added that they still “won’t be able to solve all the problems” because of the widespread amount of damage.
After touring the farms, Gutter and Graden conducted a roundtable meeting with locals at the Union County FSA office to discuss what kind of assistance is out there and what more can be done to help.
The FSA currently offers several disaster relief programs that include supplemental revenue, loans, insurance, and financial assistance for crops that are non-insurable. Secretary Vilsack has recently announced that the USDA is releasing extra acreage of lands currently under easement in the Conservation Reserve and Wetland Reserve Programs, which will allow farmers to use previously unavailable farmland for haying and grazing. He has also reduced the interest rate on emergency loans from 3.75 percent to 2.25 percent and called for crop insurance companies to allow farmers an extra 30 days on their grace period before charging interest on unpaid premiums.
For farmers like Craig, the assistance may be just enough to eke through the year. That 1,000 bushels of corn needed for winter feed could come at a hefty price tag – corn is already close to $8 a bushel and climbing. He also needs about 100 bales of hay to make up for what he has lost. Taking out loans to afford all that could be a risky undertaking, especially if conditions do not improve next summer, but selling the cattle could be even worse, as Craig estimates it would take about three years to replenish his livestock. Despite the desperate conditions, he says he has no interest in giving up.
“I think I’d go nuts if I didn’t have cattle to take care of,” he said. Still, he remains optimistic, saying, “I guess things could always be worse.”
If the rain that came in late Thursday afternoon is any indication, things may just start getting better.