LOST NATION, Iowa The Willimack brothers are ready for spring planting and feeling optimistic.
About three weeks before they start planting the almost 6,000 acres the four siblings farm with their father, Gary, they have bought seeds and fertilizer and decided how much corn (70%) and soybeans (30%) to grow this year.
Still, a year after the worst drought in decades dried up crops and shriveled farm income across the Midwest, the Willimacks and other farmers are worrying as they do every spring about the weather.
"I think we're going to have a good crop," says Matt Willimack, 35. "We're going to have a lot of bushels to sell."
The Cedar and Wapsipinicon rivers "are right at their banks, running full," he says, and his "gut feeling" is that "we're starting to get precipitation on a semi-regular basis."
His brother Brent Willimack, 42, says he feels better than he did a year ago, when "the weather was really goofy," with temperatures in the 70s in March followed by a cold spell when newly planted crops needed warmth.
The Willimack family didn't fare as badly last year as some of their neighbors, says Jayson Willimack, 39. They averaged 150 bushels of corn per acre, down 40 bushels from normal, and about 65 bushels of soybeans per acre, 10 bushels below normal. Some nearby farmers fell as much as 130 bushels per acre short of their usual corn yield, he says.
When the Willimacks dug into the soil last fall during a construction project, the earth was "bone dry" 10 feet down, Jayson Willimack says. "We need 17 inches of rain to get (subsoil moisture) back to normal," Brent Willimack says.
This part of Iowa is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, while parts of Iowa west of here remain in severe or extreme drought. Portions of Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas also are in extreme or exceptional drought. Some states hit hard in 2012, including Indiana and Illinois, are no longer in drought.
Joel Widenor, a meteorologist at Commodity Weather Group, which provides forecasts for the agriculture and energy industries, says weather patterns this year are "very different from what we saw last year." He expects South Dakota and Minnesota to get enough rain to minimize drought but warns that parts of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas "have the best chance of holding on to drought."
He says the "summer outlook does lean drier and warmer than normal."
That's grim news for Doug Saathoff, 39, who farms 2,600 acres with his brother near Grand Island, Neb., "Last year was the worst year I've experienced as far as no rainfall and heat," he says. They salvaged their corn by irrigating most of their fields, Saathoff says, but "the fuel bill gave me a heart attack."
He would like to be fertilizing now, but cold weather is delaying field work, he says. He expects another summer with below-normal rain. "I don't think it will be as bad as last year," he says, "but it's still pretty dry here."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts record net farm income of $128.2 billion this year, up from $112.8 billion in 2012. Bigger harvests will offset an expected drop in crop prices.
That's "nothing but good news for consumers finally," says Chris Hurt, an agricultural economist at Indiana's Purdue University. Lower prices for corn and soybeans mean lower prices for foods that contain them, he says, and as livestock and dairy farmers' feed prices drop, they'll increase production, resulting in lower costs for meat and milk.
"The bottom line is if you don't have to spend as much on food," Hurt says, consumers will spend more on "things that stimulate the overall economy."
The Willimacks hope to start planting corn around April 15, Brent Willimack says. Between now and then, sunshine and warm temperatures are needed to soften ground still hardened by frost because of a cold March.
Then regular rain is needed. "If we go through a two- to three-week period with no rain, the crop will suffer some because we don't have any subsoil moisture," Jayson Willimack says.
By July 10, when corn pollinates and begins to mature, the brothers will know how their corn crop is faring, Matt Willimack says. Soybeans, which are planted later, need plenty of moisture in August to ensure a good harvest.
The brothers aren't worried about prices for their crops, which they know will fall if the drought eases and yields are high. "We can manage those things," Matt Willimack says. "We don't have control over Mother Nature, and I feel that pattern has gotten more optimistic."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)