The cobs are small and the stalks are short and limp across much of Dave Marquardt's Waverly, Minn.-area cornfields as harvest gets underway, starved by meager rainfall through much of prime growing season.
Just 40 miles to the southwest, the cornstalks tower over Ryan Mackenthun's head at his farm near Brownton, the cobs fat with juicy kernels. This area was spared the worst of the drought, Mackenthun said, with regular spurts of rainfall from mid-June onward.
"We're looking at an above-average year for yields," Mackenthun said Tuesday, standing next to rows of corn he said he's in no particular hurry to harvest. His soybeans are in strong shape too. "We were very lucky."
Back up in Waverly, Marquardt has already started harvesting corn, worried its condition is too weak to withstand the elements much longer.
"Pretty poor to start with," Marquardt said of his corn yield so far. Land that normally produces 180 bushels per acre has been more like 110 to 150 bushels. He has higher hopes for his soybeans, but was disheartened on Tuesday as he inspected nearly mature plants that looked small and weak.
All over Minnesota, farmers have or are about to start harvesting this season's crops, which in large parts of the state were subject to drought conditions for much of the spring and the early part of the summer.
It's too early for the definitive word on Minnesota's yields this year. Worries of a drought-driven wipeout look unlikely to materialize, although plenty of farmers in harder-hit areas are expecting to break less than even on this year's crop.
"In terms of Minnesota's overall crop this year, it's going to be in the fair to good range," Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen said. There's plenty of exceptions, Petersen said, but in rough terms he's seeing fair to poor yields in the St. Cloud area and northward, but good to excellent yields anywhere south of that.
Marquardt, whose farm sits about 3 miles south of Hwy. 12, said he sensed a similar dividing line in his area. "You talk to farmers just a little bit north of here and they got half as much rain as we did. And then you to farmers just a little bit south, and then got twice as much," he said.
The USDA's weekly crop report released on Monday found that the majority of Minnesota's corn and soybeans are in fair, good or excellent condition, and with sugar beets, potatoes, sunflowers and dry edible beans posting even better numbers.
The weakest showing was for pasture and range, the term for small plants grown for cattle forage — a hit on cattle farmers, who suffered some of the most intense effects of the drought.
"We were dry for the month of June, but after the Fourth of July we've been really blessed with timely rains," said Dana Allen-Tully, who, with her parents and brother, runs a 4,500-acre dairy and crop farm in Eyota, just south of Rochester.
In recent days, Allen-Tully said, they've been harvesting corn for silage — a process in which ears and stalks are picked together, then fermented over the winter for use as cattle feed next year. Soybeans will likely come next, then ears of corn. "The corn silage yielded really well and I think overall we're likely to have an above-average yield," she said.
Grain prices have stayed high throughout the year, guaranteeing a nice payday for those farmers who harvest bountifully. For those who don't, there's federally subsidized crop insurance to offset the worst of their losses, and hope that the rain that came too late to salvage this year's yields bode well for next year's season.
"We'll see a significant loss financially," said John Swanson, who grows soybeans, corn, wheat and sunflowers on his farm in northwest Minnesota's Polk County, one of the worst-hit spots.
"We had about 2 inches of moisture, give or take a couple tenths of an inch, from planting until the end of August," Swanson said. His wheat harvest was less than 50% of normal, Swanson said — farmland that at its best generates 90 bushels an acre was instead yielding 60 bushels or less, and in some drier spots of his farm it was only 4 or 5 bushels an acre.
Still, given how dry it got, Swanson said he was ready for worse. He and other farmers credited no-till practices and superior crop genetics for fending off worst-case scenarios.
For the worst-hit, crop insurance policies typically reimburse at a rate of about three-quarters of a 10-year average of their yields.
"It's nice to have but it's not going to make you whole," said Mike Skaug, who farms near the town of Beltrami, also in Polk County. Skaug has already started harvesting soybeans, and said yields so far are about half of normal. He said this year was the driest he's seen his farm in 41 years of working it.
"I think this year we're likely to see a loss at the end of the day," Skaug said.
Petersen said he's relieved that the drought didn't hit as hard as feared a few months ago. But he sounded a note of caution about long-term trends, noting that states to the west of Minnesota have been afflicted by a longer-term drought.
Still, recent weeks have brought more consistent rains to wide areas of the state, including some of the worst-hit spots. It came too late for a lot of farmers, but they still welcome it with an eye toward next year. Many saw this year's dry spell taking shape when last autumn was dry.
"We ended up getting more rain yesterday than we got all summer," Marquardt said on Tuesday. "We need fall rains, we need snow this winter, we'll need spring rains. We need a lot of moisture to refill that dirt."