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By TJ Jerke, Forum Communications, Published July 05 2012

Thirsty crops, little rain worry area farmers

GRAND FORKS – High temperatures and little rainfall throughout the Grand Forks area the past few weeks are causing soil to dry up and farmers to panic, said local extension agents.

Farmers have a strong chance of seeing a significantly reduced yield production, which can drive up corn prices, and trickle down to consumers, said Jim Stordahl, a University of Minnesota extension educator in McIntosh.

“We’re now entering the year where it tends to be dry, and we don’t have those resources to depend on,” said Stordahl, who is based in McIntosh, Minn. “That savings account of water we depend on has been spent, and we are seeing signs of stress now.”

Willie Huot, a North Dakota State University extension agent in Grand Forks County, said the northeast and southwest corners of the county have been hit the hardest.

Stordahl said the eastern part of Polk County has been one of the driest areas as northwestern Minnesota, as a whole, continues to see problems.

June saw only 2.38 inches of precipitation, 1.1 inches below normal, according to Mark Ewens, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks.

And while the Fourth of July saw a high of 86 degrees in the Grand Forks region, he said the area is in for more above-normal temperatures that will reach into the 90s.

“It’s rare in this part of the world where you have a long string of days above 90,” he said. “We are too far north to have more than four or five days in a row.”

The heat is affecting small grains, such as wheat, which are typically cool-season crops that thrive in the spring months, so temperatures in the upper 80s only puts additional stress on the fields.

A walk through a corn field last week showed strong indications of stress on the plants, as corn plant leaves have curled into tight rolls, indicating a lack of moisture, Stordahl said.

Corn typically can handle warm weather, but, like all plants, it continually loses moisture and the constant 90-degree days make it hard for it to hang on.

Huot said corn is consuming most of the moisture from the soil now, soaking up to 2 inches per week. But with little rain, he said, the crops can begin to shut down, and farmers see a lower yield.

Corn tends to try and correct itself if it does not have sufficient moisture, he said, resulting in a smaller ear of corn.

To combat the heat, some farmers have the luxury of using center-pivot irrigation systems to water their fields. But a majority of area crop producers do not.

Stordahl said less than 1 percent of acres in northwest Minnesota have such systems, so rain is the only option. “There’s very little we can do,” he said about the lack of rain.

The heavy Red River Valley soils have helped as they tend to hold more moisture, but Huot said that requires some crops to extend their roots deeper into the ground as top layers of soil dry up, and it’s too late for that.

“Water is becoming less available to plants; it is near the wilting point in some areas,” Huot said. “Roots must go deeper.”

Farmers can prepare for hot weather with conservation tilling, Huot said, which leaves a higher amount of organic compound in the fields, helping them retain moisture.

But that’s not an option after planting.

Jerke writes for the Grand Fork Herald