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Published August 13, 2012, 10:58 AM

Minnesota corn growers largely dodge worst of drought

LE ROY, Minn. (AP) — The corn on Leroy Johnson's southeastern Minnesota farm is dying. About 60 miles away, Michael Zabel expects record yields.

LE ROY, Minn. (AP) — The corn on Leroy Johnson's southeastern Minnesota farm is dying. About 60 miles away, Michael Zabel expects record yields.

Conditions vary considerably, but Minnesota's corn growers largely have dodged the historic drought that has parched much of the Midwest. Minnesota's projected corn yields are down for the second year in a row, but only marginally, and experts don't expect an epidemic of farm failures. A major reason is Minnesota's unusually wet spring left enough moisture in the soil to help crops get through one of the hottest, driest Julys ever.

As Johnson walked on his 5,000-acre farm near the town of Le Roy, just north of the Iowa border, he said the stalks should be at least 7 feet tall by now. But they're barely 3 feet high — dry, brown and wilted. Some have ears of corn on them, but they're just deformed stubs.

"You hear the crispiness of it?" Johnson asked. "It shouldn't be that crispy."

The situation is vastly better on Zabel's 900-acre farm near Plainview, where the corn soars 12 feet high. The stalks were a deep green as Zabel peeled back a husk to reveal a bright yellow ear.

"We're very blessed to have extremely nice looking crops," said Zabel, who expects to yield 180 bushels an acre this year and could see record profits if prices stay high.

Updated crop production estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday projected corn yields nationally at 123.4 bushels per acre, down 23.8 bushels per acre from 2011 and the lowest yield since 1995. But Minnesota's overall yield is expected to be only one bushel less per acre than it was in 2011, down to 155 from 156.

Johnson's farm typically might produce 180 bushels per acre. He said it's nearly impossible to predict what he'll get this year because his land is such a patchwork.

"How much of the field is going to be zero, and how much is going to be 150, and how much is going to be in the midrange of 80 to 100? It's really tough to say," Johnson said.

Minnesota is in much better shape than other major corn states, said Mark Seeley, a climatologist with the University of Minnesota Extension. While better land management practices and new drought-resistant crop varieties are helping, he said, they're not the main reason for the state's good fortune.

"What saved Minnesota was that April and May were some of the wettest in history," Seeley said.

But the last seven weeks have been quite dry. And the USDA already has declared a drought disaster in Rock County in the far southwestern corner of the state, while three counties bordering Rock — Pipestone, Murray and Nobles — also have qualified for federal aid.

Despite the drought, Johnson doesn't expect a huge financial loss. Like most Minnesota corn farmers, he has crop insurance, which he anticipates using for the first time in nearly 30 years of farming.

It's not lost on Zabel that the weather has been particularly unkind to others.

"We've just been fortunate in our area here to have had some or enough timely rains where things actually look good," he said. "You feel bad for so many that are suffering. It could easily be us."

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