Drought and heat devastate Tennessee's corn crop

ETHRIDGE, Tenn. - Tennessee farmers were betting on corn this year, planting about 20 percent more than in 2006 in anticipation that ethanol production would produce high demand for the grain.

But at a time when the plants should be as high as an elephant's eye, the heat and drought are causing shrunken stalks and tiny ears.

At the Rose farm near Ethridge, there have been fewer than 3 inches of rain since April, Mary Rose said.

"We are getting these ears that will fit in the palm of my hand," she said.

The Roses pre-sold about one-third of their corn to take advantage of strong market prices, and this is the first year the family has worried about its ability to deliver on a contract, she said.       "At this point, all we can do is watch, wait and, well, pray," Rose said. "That, and see what the harvest brings."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's weekly report on Tennessee's crops describes 59 percent of corn as poor to very poor. One year ago, that number was only 15 percent and 61 percent was good to excellent.

One agricultural extension agent described the dry hot weather as acting like a blowtorch on crops. And no end is predicted in the near future.

Higher were predicted near 100 Tuesday for the eastern two-thirds of the state, including Memphis and Nashville. In East Tennessee, Chattanooga was expected to see temperatures hit the upper 90s, in Knoxville highs were predicted for the mid 90s and the Tri-State area was expected to hit the lower 90s.

Because of the heat and drought, some farmers already have begun harvesting their corn, two or three weeks earlier than usual.

"It's really a shame," said Susan Schneider, director of the graduate agricultural program at the University of Arkansas' National Agricultural Law Center.

"This should have been such a good year for (Tennessee) farmers because of the (crop) price situation," she said. "But with the drought and the shriveled and shrunken crops, I think what you might see is some farmers in real trouble or walking close to that line."

Some farmers, like the Roses, have signed contracts promising to deliver a certain amount of corn. If they do not harvest enough to deliver, they have to make up the deficit by purchasing the corn from another farmer or paying the difference, Schneider said.

"The very reason buyers enter these sorts of contracts is because they want to avoid risk," she said. So while contracts let farmers lock in prices they can also be risky if the growers cannot hold up their end of the deal.

Despite a decrease in the amount of corn harvested per acre, the additional acreage planted in corn this year should mean an overall increase in corn production statewide, agricultural economists said.

Tennessee farmers are expected to harvest 780,000 acres of corn, compared with about 500,000 last year.

Nationwide, this year's corn crop is expected to be the largest ever, with 13.1 billion bushels, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. The previous record was 11.8 billion bushels in 2004.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)