Photo: Farmer Donna Melton holds ears of corn ravaged by drought in her fields outside Eldorado, Illinois.

Photograph by Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency

Farmer Donna Melton holds ears of corn ravaged by drought in one of her fields outside Eldorado, Illinois. Much of the United States remains locked in the grip of its worst drought in more than half a century. More than 50 percent of the nation is in moderate drought or worse, nearly 40 percent in severe drought or worse, and more than 17 percent in extreme drought or worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

"We've seen tremendous intensification of drought through Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, Arkansas, Kansas, and Nebraska, and into part of Wyoming and South Dakota in the last week," noted Brian Fuchs, a climatologist and U.S. Drought Monitor author, in his July 26 report.

Across the Corn Belt withered crops have driven prices skyward in the face of what looks to be the worst production since 1988, when the harvest was down a staggering 30 percent. Experts expect higher consumer food prices will begin soon and stretch into 2014 because of short supplies of staples like corn, soybeans, and wheat. Shortages also will impact meat and dairy producers because livestock depends on the same feed crops, and their rising costs will be passed on to consumers.

Ethanol production, which consumes some 40 percent of U.S. corn, has also dipped to its lowest level in more than two years while ethanol prices have soared some 22 percent this year due to fears that supply will run short because of expensive corn.

—Brian Handwerk

(See more drought pictures.)

Published August 3, 2012