A visit to Indiana's farms is not a pretty sight these days. Cracked earth, shriveled stalks and bare fields have left many Hoosier farmers struggling financially, concerned about the effects of this year's low crop yields due to the ongoing drought.
Current reports classify more than 80 percent of the state as experiencing severe drought. It's officially the worst drought Indiana has seen in more than two decades, with July's extreme heat and lack of rainfall reminding some farmers of the Dust Bowl in the '30s. Despite some recent relief, Purdue Agriculture Extension officials say rain deficits still range from 5.8 inches across northern Indiana to 11.5 inches in the far southwest.
Thankfully, in August most of the state saw at least a few inches of rain as well as some county watering and burn bans lifted. We might be starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
However, for most farmers, much of the damage caused by the current drought has already been done. Growing seasons for many crops are ending, with average yields significantly down from previous years. Farmers have had to sell livestock, fields have been damaged beyond repair and emergency supplies have been depleted. At a recent meeting of the Indiana General Assembly's Rural Caucus, groups like the Indiana Corn Growers Association and the Indiana Soybean Alliance cited the drought as their number-one issue for 2012.
Any why wouldn't they? Without rain, soybean plants lay dormant. Farmers need more rainfall to see even an average soybean crop. What's more, nearly three-fourths of the state's corn crop has been declared in poor condition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates the average corn yield in Indiana will be 100 bushels per acre this year, down from 146 bushels in 2011. For the nation's fifth-largest producer of corn, this is tough news.
Though little can be done about this year's low crop yields, there are several steps farmers and agriculture-related business owners can take to recover some damages and prepare for the next growing season.
The USDA recently declared all 92 Indiana counties as natural disaster areas. All Hoosier farmers are now eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help restore or replace essential property, pay production costs associated with the disaster year, reorganize farming operations or refinance certain debts.
Similarly, most small agriculture cooperatives, farms and ag-related small businesses can apply for federal economic injury disaster loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration by visiting this website: disasterloan.sba.gov/ela/login.aspx
In an effort to help livestock producers, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has relaxed its haying and grazing restrictions and is encouraging farmers to visit its electronic Hay Net Ad Service (eHayNet), which allows farmers and ranchers to share 'Need Hay' ads and 'Have Hay' ads online.
This year's drought devastation is also spurring the development of new technologies to help farmers better withstand drought-like conditions in the future.
The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is offering grants to those who evaluate and demonstrate agricultural practices that build crop resiliency or help farmers adapt to drought in other ways.
My thoughts and prayers are with those in the agriculture community who face economic uncertainty at this time. It's my hope these initiatives and tools will help Indiana's farmers get back on their feet, prepared to come back strong next year. I also encourage all community members to do their part in supporting local growers and producers. Agriculture has always been the lifeblood of the Hoosier economy – currently representing a $26 billion industry here – and it remains a critical part of our economic future.
For more drought-related resources, visit the Indiana State Department of Agriculture's website at in.gov/isda.