From space, the U.S. Midwest is more brown belt than farm belt right now.

At this time of year, a band of deep Kelly green should spread from Ohio to North Dakota as corn and soybeans race to pack on size before they pollinate and bear fruit. But 2019's unprecedented rains have uprooted the typical course of events. Some crops are waterlogged and stunted. Others won't be planted at all.

Unplanted, drowned or late fields have two things in common: They look brown from space, and they mean farmers will probably harvest less corn and soybeans this year than they had planned.

Some farms were devastated by the deluge, particularly smaller family operations that lacked insurance coverage and those that were washed out by flooded rivers. But thanks to a recovery in commodity prices and what University of Illinois economist Scott Irwin estimated will be a $20 billion infusion of federal money, those that are not knocked out by this perilous planting season are likely to come out of the disaster ahead.

As seeds begin to germinate and emerge, corn and soybeans are further behind than they've ever been at this point in the year, according to about four decades of data from the Agriculture Department.

For corn, planting is effectively over and the die has been cast, although we won't know the results until late fall. Soybean acres are not likely to be fully planted, either - the end of the planting window, unofficially considered to be July 4 - looms large.

Washington Post graphic
Washington Post graphic

Now, beleaguered farmers will attempt to wring a respectable harvest out of fields Irwin likened to a "war zone for growing corn and soybeans."

"Everything that could go right went perfect for growing corn and soybeans last year," he said. "This year has been pretty much the opposite. So far, everything that can go wrong has gone wrong."

When we seek to understand the brown Corn Belt, a hellish planting season is just the beginning. Planting totals are creeping higher, but many fields were planted in suboptimal conditions and farmers will be dealing with the fallout until harvest time.

The extraordinary circumstances have scrambled USDA data and made reliable statistics scarce, according to Todd Hultman, a market analyst with the data firm DTN. Hultman expects farmers across the Midwest to plant millions fewer acres of corn than initially predicted and said a large but unknown number have been forced to exercise a crop insurance provision that allows them to take a limited payout if they were unable to plant certain acres. (Farmers may still plant cover crops in those acres to improve the soil, block weeds and earn extra income, but those won't show up in satellite images until later in the season.)

Graphic from The Washington Post
Graphic from The Washington Post

The production squeeze from the lower acreage will be multiplied by what Kevin McNew, chief economist at Farmer's Business Network, estimates will be a 10% drop in production per acre, thanks to the season's miserable start.

Irwin said: "What corn got planted in June, a lot of it was in terrible conditions. They normally never would have planted corn in ground that was that wet."

Soybeans are highly sensitive to late planting, according to Ohio State University's Laura Lindsey, a soybean specialist who tests crop yields and advises farmers through the school's agricultural extension program. With each day of delay after May 1, farmers' likely harvest ticks downward. And starting in mid-June, they begin to accrue late-planting penalties from crop insurance providers, which reduces their final coverage. These incremental losses can make or break farms.

When Lindsey toured Ohio soybean country on June 25, empty fields abounded. And the soybeans she did find? They were anemic little things with little potential to produce a load of legumes.

Compare satellite views of the area around Springfield, Ill., where most land is covered in corn or soybeans, to the previous year and you see why Irwin compared south-central Illinois to a war zone.

Many of those brown acres are counted as planted, though they're not always guaranteed to succeed.

The incentives are complicated. For example, farmers may stretch the definition of acceptable planting conditions not because they expect success but because it was the safest way to guarantee they would be included in the president's latest farm bailout. Irwin estimates they'll get about $50 an acre from the bailout - in a typical year, that could as much as double their profit.

Satellite views of the area around Springfield, Ill., where most land is covered in corn or soybeans, to the previous year.
Satellite views of the area around Springfield, Ill., where most land is covered in corn or soybeans, to the previous year.

A farmer might also plant because, if crop prices rally in the coming months, they would stand to gain more per acre from the crop insurance they purchased before planting season - even if their crop limps across the finish line. And if conditions are perfect and the crop thrives, farmers could make even more. Many chose to roll the dice and bet on higher prices, Irwin said.

If July and August deliver the ideal balance of heat and precipitation and commodity prices keep climbing, some farmers could thrive this year. But the ultra-late start means everything will be riskier - the vital pollination stage will coincide with less favorable temperatures, for example, and harvest will be delayed.

Current indications for July aren't promising, McNew said. "It's expected to be cooler and wetter than normal, and that will not bode well for a crop that needs heat and dry to grow," he said.

While higher prices will perhaps reward many Corn Belt farmers for surviving the most challenging year they've ever seen, Lindsey called the situation in her hard-hit region devastating, especially on the heels of a few down years and a rough harvest and winter. "I don't think we're seeing the full repercussions yet," she said. "The effects of this year will be felt in Ohio for several years to come."

"Right now, farmer stress levels are really high," Lindsey said. "Farmers are worried about losing their farms."

Satellite images show Midwest farmland in late June 2018 (top) and the same week in 2019 (bottom). (NASA/MODIS)
Satellite images show Midwest farmland in late June 2018 (top) and the same week in 2019 (bottom). (NASA/MODIS)

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This is article was written by John Muyskens, Laris Karklis and Andrew Van Dam, reporters for The Washington Post.

Laris Karklis has been working at the Washington Post since 2000.

Andrew Van Dam covers data and economics. He previously worked for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and the Idaho Press-Tribune.

John Muyskens is a graphics editor at the Washington Post specializing in data reporting.