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Farmers In The Midwest Worry Floods Might Be Part Of The New Normal


And let's get the view now directly from that waterlogged ground in the Midwest. Frank Morris of member station KCUR has been talking with farmers, some of whom are worried that this may all be part of a new normal.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: In parts of the Midwest, farmers had been working for months without making a dime. Joe Attema, a farmer near Farley, Mo., is helping to set up a big pump to drain flooded fields.

JOE ATTEMA: Yeah, we're continuing to fight the flood - and a week or two of farming here and there, but that's pretty much been erased and so not very much planted.

MORRIS: It's been months since most of Attema's fields were dry enough to plant. And the corn he managed to get into the ground early, about half of it just rotted in the field. He says the weather has been relentless.

J. ATTEMA: Just from personal experience watching these storms and these weather events, they've gained in strength and magnitude and amount of rainfall that can come in a short amount of time. And so if that's going to be the new normal, we need to adjust to that being the new normal.

MORRIS: Some farmers have already missed this year's window for planting corn.

MICHAEL NEPVEUX: We are looking at historic delays when it comes to corn planting.

MORRIS: Michael Nepveux, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, says farmers nationwide have planted less than 85% of the corn they intended to. Soybeans are way behind as well.

NEPVEUX: This is the lowest, most delayed planting you've seen since the data originally began being collected back in the 1980s.

MORRIS: Now it's crunch time. And every day farmers delay planting, the yield potential of their crops sinks.

NEPVEUX: It's just, really, a mountain of uncertainty for farmers out there right now.

MORRIS: Grain farmers face dicey growing conditions on the one hand and shaky prices for their crops on the other. Most have federally subsidized crop insurance and can draw a payment if weather prevents them from planting. But Menno Attema, Joe's father, says it's not enough to cover his bills.

MENNO ATTEMA: It's just outright a loss. Hopefully, the next year, you do better. And this just doesn't get to be a repetitive things because you're going to go out of business.

MORRIS: So most farmers will plant all they can. Though Paula Cognitore, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, says the same weather pattern that produced mammoth rainstorms and caused billions in flood damage this spring will probably stay stuck over the Midwest all summer.

PAULA COGNITORE: The pattern is not looking like it's going to shift too much. It is definitely looking like a wet summer for the Midwest.

MORRIS: And even with lousy growing conditions cutting into production, grain prices are low.

JEFF GASKILL: I'm not a happy camper.

MORRIS: Jeff Gaskill, who farms near Rushville, Mo., says normally, catastrophic flooding that cuts supply would drive crop prices way up. But he says those trade wars with China are dampening demand and keeping prices lower than they otherwise would be. The Trump administration's promised to compensate farmers with billions of dollars in aid payments. But Gaskill says farmers just want to trade freely again.

GASKILL: We don't want to take government payments, you know? We're just as happy to - if we get decent prices and decent yields, then we're happy, you know?

MORRIS: Midwestern grain farmers may get neither this year. And Chad Hart, an economist at Iowa State University, says the level of government assistance that farmers have long relied on may not be there forever.

CHAD HART: In previous years and in previous disasters, taxpayers have been more than willing to step up and help agriculture through tough times. I'm going argue that's becoming harder and harder for taxpayers to do as we move forward.

MORRIS: After all, taxpayers have to help pick up the tab for other disasters - hurricanes, wildfires, blizzards, as well as historic flooding in the Midwest.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.
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