ST. LOUIS — Superstorm Sandy provided little relief to key Midwest farming states vexed by the stubborn drought that climate experts suggested Thursday could press on for months, complicating winter wheat crops and next spring’s corn and soybean plantings in the moisture-starved soil.
The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor update released Thursday showed that 60 percent of the land in the lower 48 states still was experiencing some degree of drought as of Tuesday. That’s down nearly 2 percentage points from a week earlier, taking into account much of the fallout from the massive storm Sandy, which dumped more than eight inches of rain on parts of the Eastern seaboard.
Roughly one-fifth of the land in the contiguous U.S. remained in extreme or exceptional drought, the two worst classifications, according to the latest update, which is put out by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
Dry conditions continued weakening a bit in some Corn Belt states, although far too late to help this year’s withered corn and soybean crops. Farmers have nearly finished harvesting both crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and yields were well below what was expected last spring when farmers planted a record amount of acreage with the crops.
Iowa, the nation’s top corn producer, saw one of the most-dramatic improvements, with half of that state still mired in the two worst categories of drought — a 13-percent upgrade from a week earlier.
The area of North Dakota gripped by some form of drought dropped 5 percentage points, to 90 percent, while Illinois saw that number slide by 18 percentage points, to 42.25 percent. Neither of those states now has any land in the two worst drought classifications.
Midwest farmers have turned their attention to their winter wheat crop, with little cooperation from the weather as about two-thirds of those plantings have taken place in drought-affected areas.
Kansas, the nation’s top grower of the grain, isn’t catching a break. Roughly 78 percent of the state is in extreme or exceptional drought.
That grim standing comes as 88 percent of the nation’s winter wheat crop has been planted, which is 3 percentage points ahead of the average over the previous five years. Sixty-three percent of the latest crop has emerged, down modestly from the pace of 67 percent during the past half-decade.