ST. LOUIS -- Illinois corn production plunged 34 percent last year as a severe drought cost the state bragging rights as the country's second-biggest grower of the grain, the federal government announced Friday in its final crop report for 2012.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said that despite planting more corn acreage than during the previous two years, Illinois finished 2012 fourth among corn states, accounting for 1.29 billion bushels of the 10.79 billion reaped nationwide.
Iowa still solidly led the pack with 1.87 billion bushels, followed by Minnesota's 1.37 billion and Nebraska's 1.29 billion, which was roughly 6 million more than Illinois.
Illinois farmers averaged 105 bushels per acre last year, down dramatically from the 157-bushel average growers had in producing 1.9 billion bushels each of the previous two years.
The state's soybeans also suffered, with 383.6 million bushels harvested last year -- well short of the 423 million in 2011 and 466 million the year before that. Growers averaged 43 bushels per acre in 2012, off from 47.5 in 2011 and 51.5 the previous year.
Illinois had big hopes heading into last spring's planting season, sowing 12.8 million acres of corn -- 200,000 more than in each of the previous two years. But last year's dry spring that enabled farmers to plant their crops weeks early propelled 2012 into becoming the state's second warmest and 10th driest year on record, with the average statewide precipitation 10 inches less than normal.
In northern Illinois, farmer Earl Williams has spent the early part of this year glancing skyward, hoping rain will soften up his bone-dry soil before the planting season and help make up for the frustration he experienced last year. So far, he's not having much luck, saying the inch of rain that fell this week on his roughly 1,000 acres near Rockford, Ill., was just the second such amount there since last April.
"I've yet to run into anyone around me that wasn't ready for 2013 to come," Williams, a 62-year-old former Illinois Soybean Association president, told The Associated Press as he headed to Nashville for an annual gathering of the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Helped by crop insurance, Williams managed to break even last year despite soybean yields that turned out to be seven or eight bushels below average. His cornfields took an even bigger hit, producing 50 to 60 bushels per acre short of the 150 to 160 bushels per acre that he'd typically reap.
Yet he's not complaining, citing the fickleness of the drought that left a farmer just 15 miles away with a harvest of 60 bushels total. The drought also came on the heels of two good years that put Williams on solid enough financial footing to weather a bad one.
The question now is what will happen this spring, and Williams and other farmers have reason to be worried. The U.S. Drought Monitor's weekly updates have shown little sign the drought is relenting. Sixty percent of the continental U.S. still was in some form of drought as of Tuesday -- much as it has been since July.