COCHRANE, WIS. -- Rain finally fell on Wisconsin's bluff country this week, but for much of the corn on Keith Greshik's 900-acre farm, it was too little too late.
Stalks that should be lush, green and 10 feet tall are brown and crisp and barely as high as the bill on Greshik's cap. Fields that only a month ago held potential for substantial yields are now nearly a total loss, withered by five weeks of stifling heat and dry weather the likes of which southwestern Wisconsin hasn't seen in decades.
"This stuff isn't going to amount to anything," a discouraged Greshik, 43, said the other day as he inspected his battered corn. "It's done."
As bad as the drought is here in Buffalo County, it pales compared to what has gripped other parts of the state and much of the Upper Midwest, which is suffering through one of the driest growing seasons in nearly 50 years.
More than two-thirds of the nation's bread basket -- from Kansas to Indiana -- has gone without rain for much of the summer, damaging or destroying corn, soybean and alfalfa fields and costing farmers millions of dollars in lost yields.
As of Friday, the U.S. Drought Monitor showed that more than half of the Midwest, which produces most of the nation's corn and soybeans, was suffering from "severe" to "extreme" drought.
Southern Wisconsin, from the Mississippi River east to Lake Michigan, was so desperate that, late last week, Gov. Scott Walker sought federal disaster assistance for 23 counties. More could be added to the list if rain doesn't fall soon -- and steadily.
"It's kind of a crapshoot, and it's part of farming," Greshik said, trying to stay optimistic. "You don't get to do well every year."
But, he added, "if it doesn't rain, we're going to be in real trouble. I mean really in trouble."
Worst since the '30s
By late Tuesday, as much as 2 inches of rain had fallen across some of the driest stretches of southern Wisconsin. But for many farmers, it brought little relief.
"Right now, that doesn't do much for them," said Tom Stangeland of the National Weather Service in La Crosse. "It keeps the fire danger down, and lawns perk up a little bit. But for some of those people, like the corn growers, the crop is gone now."
Ed Hopkins, assistant state climatologist in Madison, said the drought could be the worst "going back to the 1930s."
As of Monday, more than half the state remained "abnormally dry" or worse. Three-fourths of the state's farmland was "short" or "very short" of moisture, according to the state's weekly crop report.
It's just as bad in parts of Indiana, Illinois and Missouri.
Most of Iowa, the country's top corn and soybean grower, is suffering from severe drought.
Two thirds of Kansas is extremely to exceptionally dry. Parts of southwestern and northwestern Minnesota are moderately dry, but for the most part, the state is faring better than Wisconsin.
Buffalo County, a rolling stretch of countryside hugging the Mississippi about two hours southeast of the Twin Cities, has fared better, too, than counties farther south and east. Still, local farmers say the drought of 2012 is easily the worst since 1988.
Carl Duley, the Buffalo County agricultural extension agent, said he plans to visit farms later this week to assess damage.
"Right now, we haven't even made a guess on losses," he said. Even with Tuesday's rain, "there is some of that corn that is not going to do anything no matter how much rain we get now."
The misfortune is a cruel twist to a growing season that started so well.
So much rain fell across the valley in April and May that area farmers were optimistic.
"It took off great," said Roger Bechly, who farms 355 acres near Fountain City, Wis. "It looked promising."
Four inches of rain fell in mid-June.
And then it stopped. From June 20 through Tuesday, Buffalo County got barely a drop.
Bechly, Greshik and neighbors watched the weather reports and the skies daily, hoping for the best.
A storm system held promise a few weeks back as it moved across southeastern Minnesota. But as it approached Wisconsin, Greshik said, it "dried up at the river." It later "reformed and dropped more rain" east of Buffalo County, he said.
"It just seems like that's how it's been all summer," Greshik added. "We've got like the Bermuda Triangle of rain here."
Temperatures in the upper 90s with a heat index in the 100s have compounded troubles.
Corn planted in clay or "heavier" soil, which holds water, fared better. But much of the corn planted in sandier soil near the river shriveled up before it could pollinate.
"I've never seen corn go from being lush to rolling over in such a short period of time," Greshik said.
Alfalfa fields have largely gone dormant, too. The thin crop has left local dairy farmers with less home-grown hay to feed cattle.
"You've got to take the good with the bad," said Loren Wolfe, 70, who runs a 550-cow dairy farm near Waumandee, Wis., with John and Nettie Rosenow. "You try to do the best you can, but Mother Nature is still sort of in charge."
If only ...
As storms rolled across much of southern Wisconsin on Tuesday, Greshik's mood was more upbeat. He said the rain would "kick start" the flowering soybeans, which had started to yellow in some fields.
"It's going to stop our hurt," he said. "If we get another inch, and that would be asking a lot, we've got a lot here to really help us along."
Greshik figures that about one-third of his corn, lush from irrigation, is in good shape. About 20 percent, however, will be severely damaged or even lost.
"It's almost more frustrating to get the rain once your corn is shot," said Rita Arcand-Greshik, Keith's wife. "You sit there thinking, 'If we'd only got this a month ago.'"
Bechly, who farms about a mile south of Greshik, wonders the same. He said this week that most of the 160 acres of corn he planted is probably too far gone. He has crop insurance, he said, but it won't make up for the loss. To help ease the financial hit, he sold a field cultivator and corn wagon this week to pay his fertilizer and crop insurance bills.
"I've been living here 55 years, so you know it's part of the cycle," he said of the wicked dry spell. "But it does hit ya. You see the crop burning up out there and you know that's what you are relying on for income. It does wear on you, yeah."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425