Drought’s toll harsh, varied in county
CRYSTAL LAKE – The worst drought in decades has dried up yards, crops and profits for some area businesses.
Although recent weeks have brought rain to McHenry County, the region remains in a severe drought after the hottest July on record.
For some farmers, the rains came too late. Resulting low yields could mean consumers will pay higher prices at the grocery store in the coming months.
During the hottest days of summer, the 250 dairy cows at Kooistra Farms near Woodstock were cooled with misters and fans.
“Just like people, they don’t feel like eating when it’s that hot,” said owner Linnea Kooistra, a third-generation farmer.
But the bigger problem has been the rising cost of feed, which has jumped 40 to 50 percent, she estimated. The price of alfalfa hay, which is essential to the diet of dairy cows, is at record high levels.
“It’s more than what we can afford,” she said.
Meanwhile, the price of a gallon of milk remains low, about $1.50. It will need to go up to $2 a gallon to make up for the increased cost of feed, Kooistra said. Milk is sold on the commodities market, and prices are set by the federal government according to a formula.
“Farmers can’t set the price of this perishable product that must be sold every day,” she said. “We can’t wait for higher prices.”
Milk prices dropped about 40 percent in 2008 and stayed low in 2009.
“We’re still digging out from the recession of 2009, when the U.S. industry lost $7 billion,” Kooistra said.
Farmers throughout the Plains have begun harvesting what corn managed to survive this summer, although in some areas, growers cut their fields weeks ago, chalking the year up as a loss. Many ranchers have sold livestock because they had no grass for grazing or money to buy feed, which has soared in cost.
In Barrington Hills,
the Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society began stockpiling hay to hedge against rising prices. Volunteers helped the organization unload 1,300 bales this week.
“It’s a continuing saga, and we’ll continue to feel the repercussions next year,” society founder and president Donna Ewing said.
The society cares for about 20 horses and 50 other animals, so it always is in need of hay. But hay has been getting harder to find. Ewing estimated supplies are down by 66 percent.
Hay that is available is selling for $10 to $11 a bale this year compared with about $4.50 a bale last year. And what’s on the market is often of poorer quality, Ewing said.
The U.S. Agriculture Department twice has slashed its forecast for this year’s corn and soybean output because of the drought. It forecast the nation’s biggest harvest ever in the spring, when farmers planted 96.4 million acres of corn – the most since 1937. But the agency has cut its estimate twice since and now expects the nation to produce 10.8 billion bushels, the least since 2006.
If that estimate holds, the federal government says it will be enough to meet the world’s needs and ensure there are no shortages. But experts say food prices will almost certainly climb as corn is a widely used ingredient in products ranging from cosmetics to cereal, colas and candy bars.
Not even fully irrigated golf courses have been spared from the drought and intense heat.
Foxford Hills Golf Club in Cary has been greener than most neighborhood lawns this summer, but the water level of some of the course’s ponds has dropped considerably, said Dan Jones, executive director of the Cary Park District, which owns the course.
Crews have spent more time hand-watering parts of the course than during moderate summers, Jones said.
When temperatures were stuck near the 100-degree mark, some golfers got up early to avoid playing during the hottest part of the day while others stayed inside, Jones said.
Sunny days usually are a good thing for car wash operators, but months without rain mean fewer customers.
The Car Bath, at 820 W. Route 14 in Cary, had its worst July in six years, owner and operator Tami Williams said.
“July was brutal,” she said. “You need rain to have a dirty car.”
Williams ran specials, did extra advertising and offered deals through a daily deals site to bring customers back.
Business has picked up dramatically this month as families return from vacations and get their vehicles detailed before the start of school.
“August has been phenomenal, but we’ve just been playing catch-up to try to recoup what we lost in July,” Williams said.
Water restrictions put in place in towns and other conservation efforts helped ease the pressure on local aquifers, but the drought is far from over, said Cory Horton, water resources manager for McHenry County.
“Groundwater takes substantial time to recover,” he said. “We anticipate groundwater will continue to fall until we get a good winter and spring thaw.”
In the meantime, Horton said water conservation is still needed.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.