ROCHESTER -- Ken Bourquin's crops were looking so good in early July that he knew he wouldn't have to worry about making a profit this year.
Now, after a soybean aphid infestation and two months of drought, Bourquin and many other Minnesota farmers expect a financial hit with yields 10 to 40 percent lower than expected.
"There's cracks in the ground you can stick your hand in," Bourquin said. "Looks like the middle of October in some of these fields."
While many farmers still hope their losses will be minimal, there doesn't appear to be any relief in sight. The National Weather Service doesn't predict any change in precipitation for the area, meaning the two-month drought will likely extend well into October and through the harvest season.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said he planned to seek federal disaster relief, which would clear the way for low-interest loans. Wisconsin has already sought such a declaration.
"We estimate that the crop loss in Minnesota to date has been over $1 billion," he said during his morning radio program Friday. "The paperwork will be finalized and submitted in the next couple of days."
If approved, he said, "At least we can soften the impacts of this otherwise very difficult situation for Minnesota farmers."
Pawlenty said it appears that at least 50 of the state's 87 counties are suffering from a drought.
John Monson, of the U.S. Agriculture Department, said the worst-hit parts of Minnesota include the southeast, central and west-central areas.
To be sure, the majority of crops will be harvested. The quality of those crops, though, is in question.
The drought hurts twice: limiting the amount of crops harvested and, because of shriveled kernels and seeds, lowering the price they fetch. The recent aphid infestation, and the subsequent cost of spraying insecticide, have only added to the woes.
Most farmers break even on the first 90 percent of their crops and make their profit on the rest, so even a 10 percent yield loss can be critical.
"Mother nature throws something at us every year," said Bourquin, 57, a fifth-generation farmer in Rochester. "A different story every year."
A short walk through Bourquin's fields, about 2,300 acres of corn and soybeans, reveals patches of brown corn stalks where perhaps only one in eight has an ear. Bourquin says he'll be lucky if a combine catches anything in those water-deprived areas. Still, he does have patches of green that he's counting on to help make up the difference.
It's the worst drought year he's seen since 1988, Bourquin said. "All of (my crop) has been affected to some degree," he said.
"We were thinking we were going to get fantastic yields -- a bumper crop -- the way things looked this spring and early summer," said Roger Carlson, the Farm Service Agency's executive director in southwestern Minnesota's Rock County. "But now things have really deteriorated since then. ... The last decent rain we had was the Fourth of July weekend."
Carlson said he expects at least a 10 percent yield loss in his county.
In an ideal world, farmers would like temperatures around 80 and about an inch of rain a week, but since early July, temperatures have consistently topped 85 degrees and crops have gotten less than an inch of rain during two months of peak growing time.
Lisa Behnken, a regional educator in Olmsted County at the University of Minnesota Extension Service, said the heavier soils were able to withstand much of the drought, but light soils are filled with brown, pale crops or just barren patches of dirt.
"There's really nothing you can do except go about your same business," Behnken said. "You're still going to have to harvest the crop."
Doug Holen, who specializes in crop production for the extension service in Fergus Falls, said it's not a complete crop failure. He said that over the last few years corn yields have been excellent, so when a year like this one comes around it makes it look worse than it probably is.
"The drought has taken its toll," Holen said. "Any rain we get now will help those fields that aren't real moisture-stressed, and it'll help the alfalfa, and it'll just be moisture that we can start recharging our soil for the 2004 season. So it's not too late to get rain yet."
Some farmers are already turning their sights on next spring.
Kevin Connelly, 37, farms about 500 acres in Olmsted County. "You got to be an optimist to be in this business. We're going to look forward to next year and just assume that it's going to be better."
Still, others haven't given up on this year. Asked what kind of loss he might take this year, Bourquin said: "We won't know until the combine rolls."
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