ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Illinois farmers expect to ease up on the acres of corn they plant this year even as growers nationwide plan to devote the most acreage to the grain since before World War II, a yearly federal forecast of spring planting showed Thursday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Illinois growers expect to sow 12.2 million acres of corn, down from 12.8 million in 2012. Only Iowa — the nation's top corn producer — planned to plant more corn this spring, some 12.2 million acres.
The amount of soybeans to be planted in Illinois is expected to rise 4 percent to 9.4 million acres — from roughly 9 million last year, when the nation's worst drought in decades punished crops and livestock throughout the nation's heartland and South.
Nationwide, farmers intend to plant 97.3 million acres of corn this year — the most since 1936 and up from last year's 97.2 million acres. The report said U.S. farmers plan to plant 77.1 million acres in soybeans, down slightly from 2012's 77.2 million acres.
Darrel Good, a University of Illinois agricultural economics professor, said explanations why Illinois growers will be sowing less corn and tilting slightly toward soybeans remain elusive. But he noted that Thursday's report shows that Illinois and other mid-America states hardest-hit by last year's punishing drought now expect to plant about the same or even less corn, while farmers in more tolerant climes will go with more grain.
"That analogy breaks down when it comes to soybeans. That change in acreage seems to be more random," he said.
Thursday's report, in some circles, was trumpeted as a testament to the resilience of U.S. farmers, scores of them coming off of last year's devastating drought. The USDA's forecast "shows that America's corn farmers are eager to accept the task of producing another corn crop, despite the rough experience most of us had in 2012," said Paul Taylor, an Esmond-area farmer who heads the Illinois Corn Growers Association.
In western Illinois' Hancock County, skirted by the Mississippi River, four-decade farmer Sam Zumwalt expects to stay the course by again planting some 500 acres each of corn and soybeans on his land that's a mix of fertile river bottom and rolling hills.
"I think most people around here are in the 50-50 mode" of equal acreages of corn and soybeans, said Zumwalt, 68. "I don't see a whole lot of changes in the farm plans around here."
He hopes to fare a bit better this growing season, having seen last year's stifling drought cost him about one-fourth of his average corn yield and about one-fifth of his typical production of soybeans, which in many parts withstood the harsh conditions by getting timely rains.
"If you're a farmer, you're always optimistic," he said. But "you say that with reservation."
Growers in portions of the Corn Belt have had reason to feel heartened in recent weeks as storms pummeled the nation's midsection with snow, in some cases more than a foot deep. Much of that has melted off, boosting soil moisture while raising levels of rivers often serving as irrigation sources.
But across much of the Midwest, temperatures remain below normal, with Missouri enduring its coldest March in at least 17 years while frozen soil persists — from a few inches to several feet deep — in east-central Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin.
A weekly tracker of the drought reported Thursday that roughly half of the continental U.S. remains in drought, the most pronounced of it still festering in the key Midwestern farm states.