(MCT) — More than 95 percent of Illinois is in a severe drought or worse, according to a national report Thursday that increased concerns about how the hot, dry summer is affecting farming.
Most of Cook County is in a moderate drought, and other parts of the Chicago area are suffering through severe drought. But the central and southern portions of Illinois are experiencing even worse conditions that are classified as extreme or exceptional, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center.
Surrounding states, especially Missouri and Indiana, have also been hit hard, with 55.5 percent of the Midwest experiencing at least a severe drought, compared with 45.6 percent of the country.
The drought center's new report doesn't take into account the bit of rain the Chicago area received this week — about 0.55 inch fell at O'Hare International Airport on Tuesday and Wednesday — but it would take 3 inches or more to have made any significant improvement, said drought center climatologist Brian Fuchs.
"In a lot of places in Illinois, this is the worst they remember," said Emerson Nafziger, a professor of crop sciences at the University of Illinois.
About 66 percent of the state's corn crop is in poor to very poor condition, according to a report his week from the Illinois Department of Agriculture. In states that are major producers of corn nationwide, about 45 percent of the corn is poor or worse, though the total produced this year won't be known until after September, when harvesting begins, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During the same time last year, only 14 percent of corn crops nationwide were considered poor.
"We're sitting here, watching the sky; it looks like it could rain," Nafziger said in by telephone from near Vandalia. "People are kind of pessimistic."
Nationally, almost 40 percent of agricultural land is experiencing at least a severe drought, which makes the 2012 drought more extensive than any other since the 1950s, according to the USDA.
Illinois Climatologist Jim Angel said July's heat and lack of rain could make this drought its worst on record, especially because all across the state, farmers' soil is showing signs of having very little moisture, something essential for plant health.
"In a normal season we rely on soil moisture to get you through August, but we don't have that," Angel said.
Less corn production usually means higher food prices, according to the USDA, though the full effect of a sparse corn harvest wouldn't move through to grocery stores until at least 10 months from now. But grocery shoppers could see the price of chicken or eggs and other meats increase sooner than that, since farmers often scale back on their livestock when the cost of corn feed is high, which can happen when corn production is low, Nafziger said.
Still, some say there's room for optimism. Angel said long-term forecasts show an increased chance of above-normal precipitation and more normal temperatures over the next two weeks. The heat and dry weather looks to be shifting to the west, maybe making the Midwest a little wetter and milder, Angel said.
"That's good news if it pans out," Angel said.