Out here, 23 miles from downtown St. Louis, Mo., we're surrounded by Illinois farmlands and acres and acres of corn. Of course, you'll see plenty of soybeans in the countryside, too, but corn is the big crop, and this year was supposed to produce a bumper corn crop. Farmers were looking forward to green fields forever and the best corn production in years.
I was looking forward to that, too. You see, back in the summer of 1990, I was visiting here from California with my daughter, who was just turning 10 then. We were driving down a road east of Lebanon, Ill., and the tallest corn I'd ever seen was growing on each side of the road. The stalks were so tall, they created a tunnel effect. The corn was towering, lush and green, and the tunnel was beautiful. Suddenly, we breathed in a moist, sweet smell of aromatic corn. It saturated the air. That smell was better than the taste of any cob of fresh, buttered, juicy, sweet corn I'd ever munched on. So, I was happy to see that both sides of that road were planted in corn again this year. I had plans to photograph the corn tunnel and take in that sweet aroma.
Not a chance now. The unrelenting drought has ruined our Illinois corn.
Last week, a farmer southwest of here told a television reporter that only 30 percent of the corn crop is salvageable. This week, a county farm bureau representative told another reporter that only 20 percent could be saved and that if the rain continued to stay away, all would be lost. In some places in Illinois, some farmers already have cut down their corn, calling it a total loss, leaving just a few rows of failed corn for claims adjusters to inspect.
I remember this past spring, when I watched local farmers hard at work in the fields, prepping the soil and planting the corn before turning to the task of harvesting their winter wheat or planting some fields in soybeans. Their high hopes of record corn have dried up.
Just by chance, this morning, I happened to hear "Poor Old Dirt Farmer" by the great Levon Helm, who died this year of cancer. It's from his Grammy-winning album, "Dirt Farmer," recorded in 2007. The first verse could have been written for this year's farmers, for those hard-working corn planters of 2012. It goes:
"Oh the poor old dirt farmer, he lost all his corn.
And now where's the money to pay off his loan?
He lost all his corn, can't pay off his loan.
He lost all his corn."
The farmers I know are not poor, but when I listen to "Poor Old Dirt Farmer," I realize that farmers every year face the chance that too much rain or too little rain or no rain could ruin their crops, set them back terribly, and threaten their very livelihoods.
We're praying for rain.