The year was 1988. My brother, Dave, and I had no-tilled corn on our farm near Marietta in Shelby County in south-central Indiana. We also no-tilled soybeans that year. That was the year that started out dry, featured high temperatures, and turned out to be the worst crop year until 2012 for many places in Indiana. For some people 1988 was still worse, for others it no longer compares to 2012.
At any rate, the similarity between the two years for me is that it is the only two times in 40 years of estimating corn yields in late summer that I walked out of a corn field not knowing if it would make anything at all, let alone how much.
In 1988 our corn grew to a respectable height, then began to pollinate when it was very hot and dry. Spider mites were already crunching away on soybeans. And we had them custom-sprayed.
Finally, around July 20 that year, we received decent rain. I remember driving down to the farm from my home several miles away, walking into the field, and walking out perplexed. There were shoots and silks, but there weren't any kernels yet. By now I thought there should be kernels.
I drove home honestly not knowing if it would make enough corn to be worth harvesting.
The same thing happened this year in a field I checked for a friend. The first inspection was pretty dismal. The timing turned out to be awkward. I was there when pollination was occurring, but it wasn't clear whether kernels were going to develop or abort.
In both cases, conditions improved after my visit as far as the weather goes, with more rain and less heat, at least at key times.
It's probably not an accident that the field this year made 81 bushels per acre, and the field in 1985 made 85 bushels per acre. I was shocked then and I was shocked this year. The secret both times was missing the worst possible pollination period that caught some other fields.
If it doesn't happen for another 24 years, someone may have to push me into a cornfield with a wheelchair to estimate yield. Next time I'll be slower to condemn the field, assuming I'm around to have the chance.