Illinois farmer Rick Parker was busy spraying his crops with pesticide this week but weeds were not his biggest worry as he surveyed his fields.
If it doesn't rain this week we are going to start losing bushels (at harvest time), Parker said. It is going to take more than half an inch (of rain).
U.S. farmers were expecting bumper profits when they started planting corn this spring but Mother Nature may thwart their plans to cash in on the growing demand for ethanol, an alternative fuel made from corn.
Hot and dry weather around the eastern Corn Belt has threatened the growth of this year's crop, which needs to be large to satisfy the burgeoning need for corn.
Crop conditions were better in areas west of the Mississippi River but farmers there also were hoping for rain.
A lot is riding on the corn crop this year in the United States amid rising demand from the fast-growing ethanol industry. Exporters and livestock feeders also need the grain.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union address in January, called for the use of 35 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2017 to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent. Industry forecasts predict that up to 6.5 billion gallons will be distilled this year, up from 5 billion in 2006.
About 27 percent of this year's projected U.S. corn crop is expected to be used for ethanol, up from 20 percent in 2006, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The competition for supplies sent corn futures prices to a 10-year high of $4.37-1/4 this February at the Chicago Board of Trade, the world's largest grain trading exchange.
The demand is out there, said Art Bunting, who farms about 2,000 acres around Dwight, Illinois, with his two brothers. We need the bushels.
Crop conditions already are starting to deteriorate. The USDA said that this year's corn crop was rated 70 percent good to excellent as of June 17, down from 78 percent at the start of the month.
The Bunting brothers already have made commitments to sell about 30 percent of this year's expected crop. In previous years, they would normally have marketed only about 20 percent of their corn by late June, Bunting said.
The rise of the ethanol industry has signified a fundamental shift in the agricultural community, with many farmers devoting more of their fields to corn.
The Buntings had hoped to have contracted to sell even more of their expected crop by now but the weather was preventing them from locking in the current price of around $4 per bushel.
You can't sell too much until you know you've got a crop, Bunting said.
U.S. farmers planted 90.724 million acres of corn this year, the largest since 1944, according to a closely watched estimate by Memphis-based consulting firm Informa Economics. The USDA was scheduled to release its acreage estimate in late June.
Cash prices have remained high despite the huge corn acreage. Many processors and elevators have been forced to raise their bids to stay competitive with the ethanol plants that have been popping up throughout the Corn Belt.
Field conditions have been poor since early spring. Rainy weather during April and early May kept many farmers from starting their planting tasks in a timely fashion.
When the crop was finally in the ground, hot and dry weather arrived, pushing temperatures to above 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius), well above average for June, on some days.
The combination of the heat and the lack of moisture represented a double whammy to the recently planted corn and also slowed the growth of the soybean crop.
If it had stayed a little cooler, the crop wouldn't have been under so much stress, Bunting said.
But the corn should be able to recover if significant rain arrives before the crucial pollination stage in the next few weeks. During the pollination stage, pollen falls from the tassels at the top of corn stalks to the silks below, which determines the number of kernels on each ear of corn.
Some areas of the Midwest received some much-needed rainfall earlier in the week. In many fields, corn leaves had been curling up in the midday heat before the rain, which was less widespread than forecast, arrived.
The scattered showers provided some relief for the crops but it was mostly cosmetic. Most areas were still faced with lackluster soil moisture conditions.
Corn that was planted in late May has suffered more and is noticeably shorter than corn that was sown earlier in the season.
But farmers were still hopeful that the poor conditions have not wiped out the profits they had penciled in while working out their budgets during the winter.
As a farmer you have to be optimistic until you find out it didn't work, Bunting said.