Joe Remley, a raw-boned farmer wearing a white T-shirt, climbed down from his truck and led the way to the scene of the disaster--a field of corn so dry and brown it made the heart skip.
This land should be a lush green, but 50 straight days of 100-degree temperatures and less than an inch of rain since July 3 have seared Remley's corn to a puny crisp and threatened to ruin his soybeans.
Brittle leaves crackled as Remley pushed into the cornfield. He snapped off a stalk and said, "That's no corn borer--it's just dead." He stripped a five-inch runt ear and shook his head dolefully. It should have been a foot long.
"Corn ought to be feeling good this time of year," he said, "but this is gone . . . . It's the worst heat I've seen since I began in 1956."
The picture here on Remley's farm is little different in the rest of the grain-rich Midwestern states, reeling under the severest drought in 30 years or more.
The heat and fear of shortages have sent corn and soybean prices to their highest levels in a decade, meaning higher meat prices for consumers next year. With feed costs up and pastures burned dry, cattle and hog farmers are beginning to sell off stock.
Brief rains in Missouri and neighboring states today drove Chicago futures prices down a bit, but the arid scene remains much the same: the corn and soybean crops are hard hit and will be considerably below the latest government estimates.
Farmers here in Audrain County, one of the state's prime agricultural areas and located about 100 miles west of St. Louis, expect production to be about half the normal level.
The Department of Agriculture earlier this month predicted that with the heat and the federal crop reduction program, the national corn yield will be down 38 percent from the 1982 record. Soybeans, afflicted by the heat, will be down 19 percent, the USDA said.
In Missouri, the department said, corn yields will be 75 bushels per acre instead of the 104 averaged last year; soybeans will be down to 29 bushels from 31.5.
But the continuing drought in this area has convinced farmers that the final score will be much drearier. Stands of corn, with ears unformed, have been cut for silage. Most other fields are brown and stunted, so far gone that rain will not help.
Pods hang empty on soybean bushes, burned out by the heat and lack of water. To make matters worse, a massive infestation of spider mites--minuscule pests that sap the soybean of its moisture--is racing across Missouri and turning surviving bean fields yellow.
"Between the drought and the spider mites, things are pretty bleak," said Dale Schnarre, the Audrain County extension agent. "This is the worst bunch of spider mites we've had in 20 years--all due to the drought."
A federal disaster survey drawn up last week gives a look at the depth of the bleakness in Audrain County. Of 1,700 farms here, 1,330 will suffer "major" losses, the report said, with most in the 30 to 60 percent loss range.
With losses of this size looming in many parts of the Midwest, prices have inched steadily upwards. But the down side of that coin is that with a short crop farmers can't take advantage of the price rise.
"The dilemma is that a farmer sees soybeans hit $9 a bushel, but he can't contract because he doesn't know how many he'll harvest," said John A. Botkin, manager of the A.E. Staley Co. soybean mill at nearby Mexico. "The problem is how to take advantage of the situation."
Howard Biers, who sells implements and farms with his son, Wayne, near Hannibal, north of here, put it another way: "What's the difference if soybeans get $50 a bushel if you've got nothing to sell?"
"The people around here financially are not able to take a drought--that's how bad the farm economy is," said Bill Northcutt, who sells farm supplies in the Hannibal area. "Yes, you see nice houses and cars, but you have no idea how hard they're hurting inside."
His wife Gloria, a seed-company agent in 26 northeast Missouri counties, added: "Corn yields are from zero to five bushels per acre in my area. There is no feed for the cows. The bean crop is deteriorating. We're going to see things around here we've not seen before."
"There will be more farmers going down this year," she continued. "You call to collect bills and they say there's no money. With these crops, there's no way they can pay . . . . The federal payment-in-kind PIK program will just prolong their agony one more year. The farmer has no control; most of the forces are beyond his control."
As dreary as that picture is, there are farmers who nonetheless will find salvation in the drought and in the PIK program, which will give them corn in return for not planting this year to reduce the huge surpluses.
Farmers like Clarence Deichman in Montgomery County and Ed Deimeke in Audrain County will beat the weather partially because of irrigation systems they installed years ago. County agent Schnarre has been a leading promoter of auxiliary water supplies.
"To me," Schnarre said, "irrigation beats the heck out of sitting in the coffee shop and crying for rain . . . . About half of our 20,000 acres of corn are irrigated here and maybe 20,000 of our 170,000 acres of beans are irrigated."
Deimeke, with 700 acres of soybeans and corn under irrigation by quarter-mile-long, center-pivot units, said: "Years like this convinced me to put in the irrigation. I had a neighbor who made 130 bushels of corn while I made 30--that was enough. Irrigation will save me this year, if anything is going to."
Deichman installed four rain-collecting ponds on his farm and he's having a last laugh. "A lot of people have snickered behind their backs because we did such a thing. But I'll get the cost of my irrigator back this one year alone."
Deichman foresees corn yields of between 140 and 160 bushels on his watered fields. That will give him plenty to feed his 300-head cattle operation and leave corn to sell on the rising market. A fifth of his 800 acres of soybeans are irrigated and will yield up to 60 bushels, he predicted.
It wasn't meant to sound untoward, but he put his finger on one truth of farming's many rhythms.
"It's a bad picture for most farmers," he said. "This will sort out a lot of them--a lot were breathing their last in the spring . . . . Others will do better. Some farmers thrive on the other's disaster."