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Farmers Cautious Of Drought-Resistant Seeds


Here in the United States, the corn harvest is nearly complete. It was earlier and much smaller than in recent years, which means stockpiles are lower and prices will likely be higher. Now, while this summer's drought is largely to blame, the dry weather did offer perfect conditions to test drought-resistant corn. As Iowa Public Radio's Amy Mayer reports, seed companies and farmers are now crunching the yield numbers to see what these new varieties could mean in coming years.

AMY MAYER, BYLINE: Gary Plunkett feels giddy with anticipation. The farmer and seed dealer is harvesting corn today near Maxwell, Iowa, and he's about to bring in his first-ever sample of a so-called drought-resistant corn, a Syngenta seed called Artesian.

GARY PLUNKETT: So, I'm real anxious to get into combine and see what it does. You know, because, right or wrong, Mother Nature gave us a perfect year to test out this Artesian corn.

MAYER: As he drives his huge red Case International combine, he watches the computer, which is calculating real-time yield numbers - that is, how much grain per acre is landing in the tank.

PLUNKETT: Well, it looks like the yield's going to be up there very well. Stock quality looks great, standing very well.

MAYER: Like many Iowa farmers, Plunkett's corn harvest numbers have gyrated to disappointing to thrilling. The average corn yield here is about 140 bushels per acre this year, down from 172 last year. After a few minutes, Plunkett turns the combine around.

PLUNKETT: We'll head back to the lay wagon and see what Mitch tells us.

MAYER: Mitch is Mitch Lobeck, a Syngenta sales rep who is weighing the corn and calculating the final yield by hand. Then he and Plunkett consider the numbers.

MITCH LOBECK: If you look at a truck hybrid side-by-side, you can tell where the Artesian was. It was definitely a lower yield environment, and it still did 188 bushel. So, overall, I'd say it's a success story. But...

PLUNKETT: I think it's very successful. He's going through it...

MAYER: Plunkett says he'll plant some Artesian seed again next year, and he'll recommend it to his seed customers.


MAYER: That computer's inside Brad Moeckly's John Deere combine near Boone. Moeckly sports a Monsanto cap and says he's been following that company's Drought Guard seed.


MAYER: It wasn't grown in Iowa this year, but he heard farmers who grew it farther west, where it was even dryer, got six more bushels per acre. With corn close to $8 a bushel, that's another $50 or so to the acre, enough that Moeckly says he'll consider it, but probably not next year.

BRAD MOECKLY: I'd like to get another year under our belt and kind of see, you know, so we could more consistency and, I mean, how much that's going to cost us per bag. It's got to be economically viable.

MAYER: Monsanto hasn't revealed Drought Guard prices yet. Planting Syngenta Artesian costs about $10 more per acre. While seed companies are understandably eager to recoup their investment, many farmers worry that these drought-resistant seeds won't perform as well in regular or wet years. And farmers are a pragmatic bunch. Most want more than one year's data before trying something new. Plus, as Bill Couser in nearby Nevada, Iowa says, even without these new seeds, a drought is not as troubling as it once was.

BILL COUSER: I know when I had my first drought in 1977 that we actually had three bushel to the acre. If I would have had the hybrids today back then, we would have never had that kind of a drought, because with the hybrids today, it's just amazing what they're pulling through.

MAYER: It'll likely to take a few more years for seed sales to reveal what farmers really think of drought-resistant corn, and that will probably frustrate seed company executives who spent the long, hot summer pushing drought-resistant seed. For NPR News, I'm Amy Mayer in Ames, Iowa.


INSKEEP: That story came to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.


INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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