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Letters: Wet weather dampening hope for a big corn crop

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In a year of rising food prices and high fuel costs that are creating pressure to produce more ethanol, the country could really use a perfect corn crop.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - In a year of rising food prices and high fuel costs that are creating pressure to produce more ethanol, the country could really use a perfect corn crop.

So far, it isn't happening.

And, depending on the mix of sun, heat, rain and cool, prices could rise even further. That may mean consumers will spend even more for soda, cookies, cake or anything else that contains high-fructose corn syrup - and for any meat that relies on corn as animal feed.

A cold, wet spring put crop planting weeks behind schedule across much of the Corn Belt and drastically slowed growth where corn was in the ground.

Now, farmers in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana are replanting corn that either sat underwater in flooded fields too long to germinate or failed to break through sodden, compacted soils. And the cool, soggy weather continues, the last thing a heat-loving crop such as corn needs.

"It's starting to look like a very difficult year," University of Illinois agronomy professor Emerson Nafziger said.

Now, farmers and crop experts say it's up to the weather to deliver an ideal growing season to make up for the slow start.

"I haven't given up hope yet," said Roger Elmore, a corn expert at Iowa State University.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said this week that 88 percent of the corn crop had been planted. Last year at this time, farmers were all but finished. This year's figure doesn't account for farmers who have to replant; that number may not be known for months.

The later corn is planted, the less it will yield, Nafziger said.

Late planting and USDA projections that farmers will plant less corn this year - despite heavy demand for the grain to make ethanol and other products - have propped up prices, keeping them near record highs.

The high corn prices, while potentially adding to already soaring costs for food, offer farmers such as Terry Bartley the prospect of a lucrative year.

Now, though, Bartley is replanting almost half his Illinois crop - 195 acres - costing an extra $45 to $50 an acre. That will take at least $8,700 out of his pocket now, and he stands to lose even more because the late planting means less corn will be produced.

"I think most of the guys in this area are going to have to replant every acre of it," Bartley, 46, said from Iuka, about 75 miles east of St. Louis.

Elmore says he is hearing similar reports from across Iowa, the nation's top corn state. Iowa farmers grew 13.85 million acres last year, about 16 percent of the U.S. corn crop, according to the USDA. Illinois was the No. 2 producer, with 13.05 million acres.

This year's Iowa crop, Elmore says, was planted wet, then rained on some more.

"If you plant wet and you get a hard, driving rain afterward, it pulverizes the soil," he said. "And you get a pretty hard, dry crust on the soil."

Young plants, he said, can't punch through.

Other fields, he said, sat in water for days. They likely will have to be replanted.

National Weather Service maps show that wet, soggy soil stretches across the heart of the Corn Belt, from eastern Nebraska and Iowa through Ohio, where only two-thirds of the crop is in the ground.

For farmers to make up ground lost to late planting, Elmore said, skies need to clear and temperatures must rise in the next few weeks. That would encourage plant growth. Then, he says, the weather needs to cool a little to slow growth and allow ears to fill with grain.

But forecasts offer potentially bad news. The weather service expects cooler, wetter weather than usual for the next month in the Corn Belt.