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Published: Thursday, 7/26/2001

Parched region slurps up rainfall

BY JOE MAHR
AND JANE SCHMUCKER
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

For some area farmers and lawn aficionados, yesterday's rain was a gift - but doled out unevenly to a region broadly thirsting for a drenching.

Ranging from sprinkles to three inches, the rain added to the uneven future of the region's crops. For some, it was too little, too late. Elsewhere, it was enough to keep crops stable - provided it continues to rain through the summer.

“I think it stops the bleeding,” Jim Swartz, assistant manager of Luckey Farmers, Inc., based in Woodville, said.

But he estimated that the preceding hot, dry weather cut 30 percent of corn yields in parts of Lucas, Ottawa, Wood, and Sandusky counties.

“The rains were welcome,” he said. “The unfortunate thing is they weren't days late - they were weeks late.”

The rain complemented scattered storms Saturday that left up to two inches of rain in parts of the region, while other parts were untouched.

But there were two big differences.

Unlike Saturday's storms, yesterday's rain ushered in cooler temperatures, and the slow-moving storm dropped rain on nearly every part of northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, according to the National Weather Service.

“It was one of the rarer cases recently where most of the area got a good rain. A lot of the area got an inch or more,” Mark Adams, a weather service meteorologist, said.

The rain moved in courtesy of a wave of low pressure moving east along a cold-front boundary.

Mr. Adams said it appeared that parts of central Sandusky, northwest Seneca, and southwest Wood counties received up to three inches, based on Doppler radar estimates. Still, much of northern Lucas, southeast Wood, and southeast Hancock counties got less than a half inch, Mr. Adams said. In northern Monroe County, the rain was less than a quarter-inch.

Rainfall totals for yesterday were Toledo Express Airport, 0.96 inches; Metcalf Field in Lake Township, 2.02; Defiance, 0.78; Lima, 0.37; Findlay, 1.11; Tiffin, 1.80; Fremont, 1.75; Sandusky, 1.50; Monroe, 0.28; Adrian, 0.42, and Detroit Metropolitan Airport, 0.02.

The rain still left Toledo Express - the area's official weather station - 1.22 inches below its normal July average of 2.67 inches. Last year, 1.62 inches fell in July.

Since June 1, 4.32 inches have fallen - 2.10 below the average. Last year, 7.13 inches had fallen during the period.

And for the year to date, 15.75 inches, down 2.68 inches from the average, have fallen. Last year, 22.10 inches had fallen during the period.

Jeff Horn's farmland in southern Hancock and northern Hardin counties got between a half-inch and an inch. For him, the rain probably was too late to save a fourth of his corn yield after the weeks of hot, dry weather.

“The ground is still hard. You can still see the cracks in the ground,” Mr. Horn said. “There's no water laying anywhere.”

He wasn't alone.

The Ohio Agricultural Statistics Service estimated that 17 percent of Ohio farms were “very short” of moisture, and 37 percent were “short” for the week ending Sunday. Steamy heat on Monday and Tuesday only aggravated those conditions.

It has translated into an estimated 10 percent corn yield loss across northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, according to The Andersons, Inc., in Maumee.

Chuck Beier, the company's grain purchasing manager, said if it hadn't rained and instead continued in the 90s, “the crop would have been in real big trouble.”

“We're feeling better, but we still have our fingers crossed,” he said.

Farms likely to be hurt the hardest are those with corn plants that have bred, like most of Mr. Horn's 600 acres of corn.

Corn reproduces by dropping pollen from “male” tassels to “female” silks - a process that usually takes place during a five-day period. If the corn is under too much stress during those days, the results can be as severe as leaving plants with no ears or ears with only a few kernels.

After pollination, even if the weather becomes ideal, the damage is done. Each kernel might grow much larger than normal with plenty of rain, but when ears have few kernels, it's a poor consolation prize for farmers.

The rain may have saved the yield for farmers like Keith Avers of Wood County. His corn is just getting ready to pollinate, and rain forecasted for Sunday would be key - along with weekly rains the rest of this month and next.

“A lot depends on what happens in the next couple weeks,” he said. “We're going into a critical stage.”

In Ohio, 11 percent of the corn crop was rated “excellent,” down from 16 percent the previous Sunday, on the agriculture statistics service report. It had rated 28 percent of the crop “excellent” last year at this time.

“Had we not had the combination of the dryness and the intense heat together, we probably could have lasted a little bit longer. But the corn plant will not stand there and wait,” Mr. Swartz said. What worries Mr. Swartz is that many corn plants in Lucas, Wood, Ottawa, and Sandusky counties appear to be a foot shorter than he'd like.

“It just shows how much stress the plants have been under,” he said.

Gary Wilson, the Hancock County agricultural extension agent, estimated that one-fifth of the corn in the county has irreversible damage. Yields are likely to be down about 15 percent in such fields, he said.

Corn futures traded higher on the Chicago Board of Trade yesterday, a sure sign that traders are worrying about the weather. Soybeans - Ohio's other major crop - can set pods whenever conditions are right during two to three weeks.

But there are still concerns for that crop.

Bob Chapman, who farms 900 acres with his family in northeast Monroe County, said his soybean plants are not as big as he'd like and probably won't be able to hold as many pods as a larger plant.

Farmers, however, tend to worry over their crops throughout the summer no matter what the weather. Mr. Chapman quoted an old saying: “A dry year will scare you to death, and a wet year will starve you to death.” “It's a gamble every day,” he added.

Yield loss in northwest Ohio - and even across the Corn Belt - is unlikely to affect grocery store food prices noticeably because the crop accounts for such a small portion of the price of products on grocery shelves.

The crops tend to be used in highly processed and packaged foods, such as corn chips, or as one of many ingredients in foods, such as cereal. Much of the local corn and soybean crop is fed to hogs and chickens.

Higher crop prices, which are usually caused by low yields somewhere in the world, are good for federal taxpayers though. When prices are very low, the government gives farmers more aid payments.

As for lawns, the rain was the right prescription to start the road to recovery - according to Jim Blanchard, president of Blanchard Tree and Lawn in Springfield Township.

Mr. Blanchard said Saturday's quick and heavy rains might have done more harm than good - because quick rains tend to run off. But yesterday's sustained rains, and cooler temperatures, will help turn brown back into green.

“This is definitely in the right direction,” he said. “Whether it's going to pop every lawn back into shape, I don't know. We may need a few more of these [rains].”

It's unclear how soon those rains will arrive. The forecast calls for cloudy skies today through Saturday, with highs increasing from the mid 70s today and tomorrow to the 80s on Saturday. The first chance of showers will be in the early afternoon of Sunday and possibly Monday and Tuesday.



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