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Corn crop on the verge of collapse under brutally dry conditions

Scott Stahl, a farmer in western McCook County, walks out of his field with a corn stalk Thursday at his home near Emery. This stalk has short roots due to wet conditions early on in the planting season. (Matt Gade / Republic)1 / 4
Scott Stahl, a farmer in western McCook County, shows the male tassel of a corn stalk. Stahl said the next two weeks will be critical for moisture. (Matt Gade / Republic)2 / 4
Scott Stahl, a farmer in western McCook County, carries one of his corn stalks Thursday afternoon at his home near Emery. Stahl explained how this stalk hasn't grown as tall as expected due to lack of moisture. (Matt Gade / Republic)3 / 4
Scott Stahl, a farmer in western McCook County, shows the lighter colored roots on a stalk of corn. The brighter the roots, generally the healthier the plant will be. (Matt Gade / Republic)4 / 4

EMERY — July makes or breaks corn.

That's what Scott Stahl, of Emery, has heard countless times from his dad, uncle and many other "old-timers" who've seen the worst of the worst drought conditions.

For Stahl, who farms with his dad and uncle near the Bridgewater-Emery area, this year could be devastating as the brutal July heat scorches this year's corn crop.

And the Stahls aren't alone. On Monday, the United States Department of Agriculture released a crop progress and condition report for South Dakota reporting that 11 percent of the corn crop is "very poor," while another 17 percent is in "poor" condition.

With more than a quarter of the state's corn crop in "poor" or less condition, these next 10 days are critical for moisture.

"It's critical year round but the next two weeks is kind of go-time," Stahl said. "That's when your crop is make it or break it."

When the corn crop begins to tassel, this is a vital time for moisture, Stahl said. It's called the "pollination window" as the corn crop moves from the vegetative growth stage to a reproductive stage. Tassels begin showing at the top of the corn, as do silks for pollination.

During this time frame, "incredibly high amounts of water" are needed, upwards of 25 to 30 hundredths of rain each day, Stahl said.

Stahl, 31, said approximately 90 percent of the corn yield each year is dependent upon the moisture received in the last two weeks of July.

"As a farmer, especially in South Dakota, you are very dependent upon the weather," he said. "And it's really in God's hands as far as your moisture situation ends up being those last two weeks in July. It kind of takes the control away from you ... All the old-timers would tell you that July makes corn."

But these next two weeks aren't looking good for South Dakota farmers.

According to Laura Edwards, the state climatologist, it's "going to be tough" as the next two weeks are projected to likely be above average temperatures and drier than average.

"It's kind of a slow-moving disaster, and you're watching it unfold in front of you," Edwards said. "You know there's some tough situations coming and there's not a lot we can do to add water."

Edwards said the worst part of South Dakota is in the northcentral area, but it's gradually increasing to the southeast as the season continues.

The water shortage and heat stress on South Dakota's crops, especially corn, is "concerning" at this time, Edwards said, because tassels are beginning to show, and without the much-needed moisture, there could be some negative impacts and loss of yield during harvest.

"Up until this week it was a kind of a wait-and-see kind of situation where they (corn) weren't tasseling yet," Edwards said.

But after seeing pictures from area counties of the corn crop, Edwards said it's even more worrisome of the corn which looks especially "tough in the afternoon."

For the Stahls, where corn is the "king" crop on their operation, this is disappointing news. The farm family has approximately 4,500 acres of corn, along with soybeans oats and a cow-calf operation.

And Stahl, who has three sons with his wife, Amanda, it's a time to not be upset, but instead remain optimistic and hopeful for the future.

"You have to stay positive," Stahl said. "Farmers, really statewide, work very hard to make sure their crop is planted timely, they fertilize and they try to use all the right management practices for their area to grow an optimal crop. That can be discouraging when you try to do everything right and still it's out of your hands."

If the crop fails to produce adequate yields this harvest season, Stahl said he and his family will look to do more silage on the operation. But Stahl said they're still holding out for rain in the next 10 days, despite the brutal forecasted high temperatures.

"We're looking to the west for a rain cloud," Stahl said.

'We are all rural'

Business is "not good right now" for Scott Supply Co.

After having the "best year ever" in 2014, Scott's Supply Co. has seen a dramatic decrease this season, according to co-owner Chris Scott.

This year's sales are approximately half of what the company sold three years ago, and the drought and poor farm economy are to blame, Scott said.

"It kind of feels like we're getting piled on," Scott said of his business and his many customers. "Now we got a darn drought on top it. Anything, whether you're talking farm equipment dealers, seed dealers, fertilizer dealers, if it affects the farmer, it directly affects us, too."

Scott said the dealership is getting after manufacturers to lower pricing or increase programming, but there's little success. But to combat this, and to help up their customers, Scott said he and his staff are concentrating on the parts and service side of the business, and offering discounts when possible.

"The last thing we do is lose people and good employees is hard to find so we're just doing everything we can to keep the dealership busy, just hunker down and survive through this," Scott said.

Businesses, like Scott Supply, have to "step up their A-game" during this drought period, according to Davison County Commission Chair Brenda Bode. Bode, who is also a farmer, said it's only a short term issue, but continues to notice the impacts the drought has had on the community overall.

With farmers experiencing drought and potential loss of yield, they are spending less money in town, buying only essentials, Bode said. This causes farmers to be conservative, and Bode hopes area businesses know that farmers are "not neglecting" them.

"Right now (farmers) are not able to make a lot of these purchases. We have to ride this out together," Bode said. " ... We are all rural, whether you live in Mitchell or in country."

While a good portion of the community will see hardships from the drought, Poet Biorefining's General Manager Becky Pitz said the ethanol-producing company won't see a huge impact.

Poet Biorefining near Loomis, which began in December 2006, consumes approximately 24 million bushels of locally-grown corn annually. But Pitz said there's a large enough supply of grain within the area that Poet won't be largely affected should the harvest crop yields be lower than normal.

"We need a certain amount of corn to keep running, and we truly believe there's that much corn in storage and farmers have really held onto it, waiting for prices, what have you, and we feel we have a really good supply even across the Midwest," Pitz said.

Pitz said because of the success from the past few harvest seasons, there's almost an oversupply of corn, and that Poet will be dipping into this storage should the harvest season this year be lower than normal.

Not the worst year on record

Bode remembers how bad the drought was in the 1980s.

It was a nearly five-year period, she said, in which year after year, drought wreaked havoc on South Dakota farmers, from skyrocketing land prices to very "unfavorable weather."

Bode, who farms with her husband Lyle 17 miles north of Mitchell in Davison County, said farmers took a lesson from that time period, and now are sharing it with younger farmers.

"This will get better, we've been through droughts before ... " Bode said earlier this week. "Farmers only really get that one paycheck after harvest, so they have to be conservative."

It was 1988 that was particularly bad, according to Edwards, who said as climatologist she's heard over and over how dry that year was for South Dakota.

But in more recent years, Edwards said 2012 was the worst drought year "most people had experienced in a lifetime" for the Mitchell and Davison County area. And compared to 2017, nearly five years, later, it's not as bad — yet.

"I don't think we're there yet at this point," Edwards said, noting that July 2012 was one of the driest on record for the area. "I can't say for sure we'll get that bad. I don't want to threaten that by any means."

In the western part of South Dakota, Edwards said 2002 and 2006 were also "really hard" on the state's farmers.

And farmers will again persevere, according to Bode, who said she and other longtime area farmers are sharing their experiences and knowledge to younger generations, hoping they, too, can learn from it.

"This is a part of farming," Bode said. "This is going to occur throughout your farming career. It's just how you manage it."

Bode credits technology and "better tools" for farmers in today's world than what farmers had 20 or 30 years ago. And this allows farmers to better prepare and manage in poor conditions, such as this year.

And Stahl agrees. With improved hybrid technology and enhancement, the corn is able to stay green and pull more moisture out from the soil despite the drought, he said. But even with improved technology, he added that farmers should still learn from this planting season.

"You got to use every year as a learning experience, and you kind of use your experience as an education and hope to make the best decisions going forward," he said.