DES MOINES, Iowa -- It's too soon to say how a drought that is withering corn in the Midwest will affect the nation's food prices, but experts say consumers should expect the price of meat to rise. However, products like corn flakes would be little affected.
As the worst drought in nearly 25 years spreads across the Midwest, almost a third of the nation's corn crop is already showing signs of damage. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new report predicting that farmers will get only a fraction of the corn anticipated last spring when they planted 96.4 million acres, the most since 1937.
The cost of meat is most likely to be affected because corn is used to feed cattle, and its price is usually passed along in the cost of hamburger and steak. But meat prices were already rising and were expected to stay high after last year's drought in Texas forced many ranchers to reduce their herds.
Corn also is widely used as an ingredient -- in corn flakes to ketchup, bread and soda pop -- but it accounts for a small fraction of their costs compared to such things as transportation and marketing.
A rule of thumb is that food prices typically climb about 1 percent for every 50 percent increase in average corn prices, said Richard Volpe, a USDA food markets research economist.
The government has already predicted food prices will increase this year by as much as 3.5 percent. It won't be clear until the fall, when all the damage is known, how much the crop loss will add to that, Volpe said.
Some cornstalks in fields around the farm where David Kellerman works stand tall, but appearances can be deceiving. When the husks are pulled back, the cobs are empty. No kernels developed as the plants struggled with the heat and lack of water.
The soil in Kellerman's part of southern Illinois is like dust. The region has had less than an inch of rain since mid-April. This week, he and the farmer he works with packed it in. They cut and baled the withered plants to use for their cattle.
Kellerman, 28, farms near Du Bois, Ill., with his neighbor Gerald Kuberski. He said they had been holding out hope for rain, but gave up last week after more than a week of 100-degree or hotter days.
Temperatures over 95 degrees while corn is pollinating can stunt the growth of ears and prevent kernels from fully developing. "Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday we had 108 degrees. It just pretty much fried the corn," Kellerman said.
He and Kuberski considered selling 20 head of cattle because they expect feed costs to be high, but so many farmers are trying to sell animals that prices in their area have plummeted.
"You can't really give them away so we decided to keep them and feed them this baled corn," Kellerman said. "We don't know how it's going to work."
The drought stretches from parts of Ohio to California. The historic drought that gripped Texas and other parts of the Southwest last year was more severe, but this year is notable for the ground covered.
"To see something on this continental scale where we're seeing such a large portion of the country in drought you have to go back to 1988," said Brad Rippey, a USDA agricultural meteorologist.
That year, farmers saw corn yields, or the amount produced per acre, drop by nearly a third.
The USDA said Wednesday it now expects farmers to get 146 bushels per acre this year, rather than the 166 bushels per acre it predicted at the beginning of the year. They will harvest an estimated 12.97 billion bushels of grain, a 12 percent reduction from an estimate in June of 14.79 billion bushels.
But even with that loss, farmers may still do better than they would have 10 years ago because plant breeders have developed corn varieties better able to withstand drought. The average yield in 2002 was about 129 bushels per acre.
Even farmers who lose much or all of their corn this year are unlikely to go under. Most take out crop insurance to cover weather-related losses.
Matt Johnson's popcorn fields in Redkey, Ind., have been burning up by the day, and he expects his insurance adjuster to tell him to mow them over if no rain comes by next month.
"It's pretty sad," said Johnson. "Everything's just so short, so small. We haven't mowed our yard since sometime in May. We didn't even get an inch of rain in June and haven't gotten an inch yet in July."
In the end, it may be farmers' spirits that take the hardest hit.
"It's a farmers' nature to want to grow a good crop, and that's a very depressing state to be in when that doesn't happen," said Don Duvall, who farms near the Illinois-Indiana state line in Carmi, Ill.
"Not only has it hit the corn crop, but there are well-established trees that are dying," he added. "Leaves are falling like it's autumn, and a lot of the landscape is just dying."