Production Blog
Pam Smith DTN\Progressive Farmer Crops Technology Editor

Friday 06/22/12

The Time It Almost Rained


Corn rolls up in hopes of a Sunday rain between Macon and Moweaqua, Ill. (DTN photo by Pamela Smith)

DECATUR, Ill. (DTN) -- I have always loved a good rain. As a child, I was taught it was a reason for celebration. We danced in it. We rolled our pant legs up and splashed in puddles and squished mud through our toes. Folks who dash inside to avoid a few sprinkles perplex me. I almost always lift my face to the heavens and give thanks for the life-sustaining droplets.

Those who have endured the heartache of flood damage will almost certainly have a different tale. However, it is unrelenting dryness that saps me. For the past two years, my place on earth has been parched. This is central Illinois where the soils run deep and fertile and the corn grows tall and lush. Each week, DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Bryce Anderson sends me the drought monitor and it shows we sit on the southern band of a streak that stretches across the Eastern Corn Belt.

What makes this situation more frustrating is I can get out of this desperate dry by driving a mere 20 minutes or less, depending on direction. Each time the Doppler indicates an approaching weather cell, it seems to break up within a few miles of where I live. "You must not be living right" is a comment I often hear these days. I wonder what that means?

Last week the farmer down the road told me he mowed hay, washed his truck and left the tarp off the feed wagon all on the same day in an attempt to tempt a rain. I have quit checking the weather on the computer in the middle of the night. I would rather be surprised than disappointed and sleepless.

In the prologue to his book "The Time It Never Rained," my friend, the late Elmer Kelton, described the 1950s drought in West Texas:

"Just another dry spell, men said at first. Ranchers watched waterholes recede to brown puddles of mud that their livestock would not touch. They watched the rank weeds shrivel as the west wind relentlessly sought them out and smothered them with its hot breath. They watched the grass slowly lose its green, then curl and fire up like dying cornstalks...

"Men grumbled, but you learned to live with the dry spells if you stayed in West Texas; there were more dry spells than wet ones. No one expected another drouth like that of '33. And the really big dries like 1918 came once in a lifetime.

"Why worry? they said. It would rain this fall. It always had.

"But it didn't. And many a boy would become a man before the land was green again."

We are far from that point in central Illinois. For parts of West Texas, the ordeal lasted a full seven years. My husband and I own and operate a lawn mowing and maintenance business. The yards we mow, while not crucial to the food supply, support 12 to 18 employees. By May this year, yards in our area had the look of August and a sad percentage of our business has become removing dead bushes and shrubs. We are currently cut back to half our staff. I can't imagine what five more years would mean.

Yesterday, I used my lunch hour to retrieve tractor parts. Driving to Assumption, Ill., I stopped to scout some corn and soybean fields and take some crop photos. I felt the temperature drop and smelled the rain before it arrived. The telltale stripes could be seen on the horizon and soon, rain pelleted the windshield hard enough to make driving hazardous.

I tried to stay optimistic as I headed home, but once again found the rain had stopped just shy of our location. We got a few sprinkles that my grandfather would have measured as "not enough to make a good spit."

This week a release from Michigan State University landed on my desk that talked about the emotional impact of weather-related crop issues. Farmers in that state are reeling from the impact of record-breaking warm temperatures in March followed by hard freezes in April that caused frost damage to crops such as grapes, peaches, plums and cherries in Michigan and the Great Lakes area. Experts are saying this will be the worst year for the fruit industry in several decades -- with many growers losing significant amounts of their crops.

Extension educator Karen Pace noted in the release that these losses and changes can cause anger, anxiety, fear and sadness -- and while real and understandable -- can also provide challenges to people's relationships and overall health and well being. She discussed several suggestions on how to navigate the hardships -- which are similar to the advice experts give when counseling on loss and grief. You can read the entire report here:…

In his book, Kelton wrote about a joke that was popular during the long Texas drought. A man bet several of his friends that it never would rain again, and collected from two of them. When he autographed the copy of my volume in 2001, Kelton penned: "For Pamela -- A story of hard times in a good country."

Right now, for those in the dry belt of central Illinois it feels as if we are on the verge of hard times. It will rain. It always has, but a good long soaker would sure give us more than hope.

Pamela Smith can be reached at


Posted at 1:28PM CDT 06/22/12 by Pam Smith
Comments (6)
Thanks for the words of encouragement Pamela. Those of us in NE Indiana feel the parched pain associated with this year's lack of hydration. To watch moisture bearing clouds appear on the radar, only to mysteriously split north and south prior to penetrating Noble county is hard on one's heart. It'll rain again. Right?
Posted by Keith Kankovsky at 12:12PM CDT 06/25/12
I sure hope so Keith. I drove through your area today and saw enough to feel your pain. Please keep us posted on how your crop is faring.
Posted by Pamela Smith at 10:34PM CDT 06/25/12
This year will test the seed corn to the fullest extent possible. My farm is near Georgetown, IL, and the crop still looks good but is living off of Flanigan-Drummer soil which is poorly drained. Tiles were running some until recently. The corn crop just does not look vibrant. Plus it is starting to tassel right in front of very hot weather - terrific. We will also test out the crop insurance! Praying for rain -
Posted by John Butler at 10:18AM CDT 06/27/12
Thanks for your comment John. I noticed a good percentage of the corn tasseling in your area yesterday and the next few days will be a test. I didn't get a close look at soybeans in that area are they holding up?
Posted by Pamela Smith at 6:07PM CDT 06/27/12
Pam, Elmer Kelton is my favorite author and I just finished "The Time it Never Rained" last year. I was sharing with my bride that this year reminded me of some of the stories Elmer shared in his book. Thanks for sharing the info from MSU as well. While I no longer actually farm, I work with thousands of farmers across the country and many of them are suffering from drought...or drought fears. Keep up the great work! covercropdave
Posted by Dave Robison at 3:30PM CDT 07/01/12
Thanks Dave. Do you think the drought will impact cover crop planting this fall?
Posted by Pamela Smith at 3:17AM CDT 07/04/12
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