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Heat and drought ravage US breadbasket

18 july 2012, 13:25
0
Corn plants dry in a drought-stricken farm field. ©AFP
Corn plants dry in a drought-stricken farm field. ©AFP
There was no end in sight Tuesday to the blistering heatwave baking much of the United States that has farmers mulling cutting down crucial crops and sent grain prices skyrocketing, AFP reports.

Meteorologists said the country's central breadbasket, the world's largest source of both soybeans and corn, faces another month of stifling drought that has already sent food prices higher and could affect global food supplies.

With heat parching farm states east of the Rocky Mountains since May, arable farmers are even thinking of cutting their losses -- cutting down fields of half-mature, ear-less corn to feed the stalks to cattle.

And ranchers may reduce herds because of the high price of feed.

"The jury is still a little bit out on it. We are in that process right now, making that decision," said Steve Foglesong, who raises cattle and farms corn in Astoria, Illinois.

"From the road the corn looks green, but there are no ears on it."

Foglesong said the next two weeks will be crucial, but weather forecasters were not encouraging.

"The worst of the drought is right in the middle of the nation, the corn belt. It's just been bone dry," said Carl Erickson, a meteorologist at Accuweather.

"Unfortunately across the central plains, the Mississippi valley, it looks like the overall pattern will remain in place for the rest of the month and into August," he said.

"Once you get into a pattern like this, it almost feeds on itself."

More than 60 percent of the continental United States has been under drought and extreme heat conditions since June, according to Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Temperatures have topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) for days in a row in many places, with the central plains running three to four degrees Fahrenheit above normal this month.

Svoboda said the drought was as tough as some of the worst in the 1930s and 1950s, although those benchmarks were multi-season, multi-year disasters and the current situation only dates to May.

But, he pointed out, the timing of the lack of rain and the heat has been particularly devastating, coming just at the peak of the growing season with the epicenter the central US farm belt.

Joseph Glauber, chief economist for the Department of Agriculture, said their surveys show that 38 percent of the corn crop, and 30 percent of the soybean crop, are considered in "poor" or "extremely poor" condition.

That compares to 9 percent and 8 percent respectively this time last year.

Glauber said the department would wait for data usually collected in early August before reaching a conclusion about the crops.

But, he said: "It's evolving as we speak. Every week these crop conditions have gotten worse."

Corn prices have soared by 50 percent since May, while the rate for soybeans, which develop later than corn and might be able to bear up under another few weeks of rainless conditions, has surged 26 percent.

Commodity specialists at the World Bank have their eye on the situation, after sharp surges in global food prices in 2008, 2010 and 2011 dealt harsh blows to poor, food-importing nations.

"While it's too early to be overly concerned, the Bank is monitoring the situation closely for potential impacts on our clients," said Marc Sadler, team leader for the World Bank's Agricultural Finance and Risk Management Unit.

"Global stocks in most of the tradable grains are lower now than they have been historically... we don't have as much in the larder as we used to."

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