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The dry Midwest is getting some much needed rain, but it might not be enough

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This summer has been one of the driest on record for much of the Midwest, deepening a yearslong drought in Kansas and Nebraska and spreading east. And while July brought some much-needed rain, Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert wondered, will it be enough for thirsty crops?

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: Ryan Krenk is walking into one of his cornfields in southeast Nebraska. He's out in the fields today, but a few weeks ago, he didn't want to even look at the crop.

RYAN KRENK: All I really want to do is just, like, go home and, you know, don't look at it 'cause it was sickening. It was just absolutely sickening.

REMBERT: Deep dryness had scorched his corn. The plants had a grayish hue instead of the usual vibrant green and were just calf- or even ankle-high when they should have been above his head.

KRENK: It looked like death. And I said, you know, I don't think it's going to see you tomorrow, and it's still somehow here several tomorrows later.

REMBERT: July rains provided a lifeline to crops in the Midwest and Great Plains. Now Krenk's corn is taller and greener.

KRENK: I mean, the turnaround was magical - is magical. But we need more rain. That's for sure.

REMBERT: It'll take consistent precipitation to nourish crops and improve the drought, which has been baking soil and plants for years in portions of the Midwest and Great Plains. The region went into the summer with a lack of soil moisture that many have said is the worst they'd ever seen. Then Mother Nature dealt an incredibly dry May and June, which is when many states can get up to 60% of their annual precipitation.

DOUG KLUCK: When you miss precipitation during those two months, you know there's going to be trouble.

REMBERT: That's Doug Kluck. He's a climatologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At this point, parts of the Midwest and Great Plains are dealing with drought that's similar to a chronic cold. Dryness has been lurking for years and nagging at farmers as they've raised their crops and livestock. Now it'll take a lot of rain to restore moisture.

KLUCK: Yes, we're having some rains. But, gosh, give it a week, and what we see today is pretty much going to be gone. But a lot of it's going to get used up by the plants and everything growing right now.

REMBERT: As the drought spread east from Kansas and Nebraska, it got so dry in central Illinois that John Ackerman was worried about being able to plant his pumpkins.

JOHN ACKERMAN: We went 50 days without virtually a measurable rain. We look at the forecast every single day.

REMBERT: Ackerman ended up planting the seeds much deeper in the soil to help them find moisture. That makes it harder for the plant to grow up through the dirt. But the July rains helped the pumpkin sprouts poke through the ground and helped Ackerman's stress levels.

ACKERMAN: My wife says I'm slightly less grumpy than I've been over the last month, so that's a win.

REMBERT: It's a win for the crops, too. But Ackerman, who also grows corn and soybeans, says he's still guessing his corn harvest could be up to 20% lower than what he'd like. Lasting heat and dryness may threaten harvests across much of the corn belt, says Krista Swanson, an ag economist with the National Corn Growers Association.

KRISTA SWANSON: Our top four corn-producing states are Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota, and virtually all are in drought conditions at some rating.

REMBERT: Luckily, there's good reason to be optimistic for the long term. Meteorologists are predicting a climate pattern called El Nino, which raises the likelihood of cooler, wetter weather occurring in the middle of the country during late summer to early fall. So in parts of the Midwest and Great Plains, at least, an easing of the yearslong drought could be in sight. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Rembert