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As Planting Begins, Farmers Eye the Sky

JIM ROBBINS sits straight up in his chair pushed away from the dining room table, waiting for his fields to dry. "I think we're going to have a good year," he says. "There's people that are nervous. We got hit with a drought in '88 and a drought in '91. People need a good year."

That's the way farmers here and throughout the Midwest are approaching spring planting this year. Gingerly. And with a sharp eye on the sky.

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The reason is that, aside from drought, flooding, crop prices, and the other vicissitudes of farming, this is also the year of El Nino.

El Nino - a periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean - has been linked to everything from the failure of fishing off the South American coast to poor monsoons in India. The aftermath of El Nino, some meteorologists suggest, may also make drought more likely in the Midwestern United States.

Here in Illinois, some observers suggest that farmers may be rushing to plant their crops early to avoid the worst heat of a predicted drought.

"It appears that the Illinois farmers are extremely anxious to get the crop in this year," says Jerry Clampet, an Illinois state statistician. So far, farmers in the state have planted 13 percent of the corn crop - a record this early in the year.

But other big corn states - Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Nebraska - had less than 5 percent of the crop planted, according to surveys released Monday. This is on par with state and federal five-year averages.

The possibility of El Nino causing a drought is a hotly debated point among meteorologists. It has also caused a stir in US agriculture circles.

"I've talked about it every day for three months," says Jon Davis, agricultural meteorologist with Lehman Brothers in Chicago.

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"The idea that's being put out, anyway, is that the Midwest often has droughts the year after El Nino," says Iowa state climatologist Harry Hillaker. "Some people have started to hedge and say maybe it could creep into this year or even this growing season."

RAINS in the past few days are likely to delay field work in many parts of the Corn Belt until this weekend, state statisticians say.

Every day it rains, Mr. Hillaker breathes a little easier. Every drop of extra moisture makes the crops a little more immune to any drought that might be caused by the aftermath of El Nino.

"It happens often enough that it's definitely something to worry about," he says. But given all the variables involved, "the real historical odds for a drought start to get pretty slim."

Depending on how they define the phenomenon, meteorologists believe El Nino started either last winter or last month. The timing is important, because it determines when certain weather patterns might take place, such as the failure of Asian monsoons.

"What we have this year is mass confusion," adds Peter Leavitt, executive vice president of Weather Services Corporation, based in Bedford, Mass.

As far as North America is concerned, the main worry is not El Nino but its aftermath. Meteorologists are watching closely to see if the rapid warming of the tropical Pacific will be followed by a rapid cooling, known as La Nina. That's what happened in 1988, when a drought hit many parts of the Corn Belt.

If the tropical Pacific cools rapidly, "odds of drought-related problems this summer are greater than what you categorize as a normal year," says Mr. Davis. "Is it likely? It's never likely."

Mr. Leavitt is even more skeptical that La Nina leads to Midwestern drought. "That's like flipping a coin once and saying it always comes up heads," he says. "[Mt.] Pinatubo may have turned out to be more important than El Nino."

Pinatubo, the Philippines volcano 55 miles northwest of Manila, erupted June 12 and 13 last year, spewing gases into the atmosphere like a huge aerosol can, Leavitt says.

The result may be more variability in the Midwest this year: cooler and wetter in the eastern band of farm states from Ohio to Iowa; warmer and drier from the Great Plains westward, he says.

Back here in the Robbins living room, volcanos and the temperature of the Pacific Ocean seem very far away. Mr. Robbins doesn't even mention them as he talks about the challenges of farming.

Since last year when the Monitor interviewed him, one of his brothers has left the farm unit. That means that three people will have to do the work of four. "I'm looking at it positively," Mr. Robbins says. "I'm farming more ground."

But by the set of his jaw, it's clear he's anxious to start planting as soon as possible. This time of year, that's uppermost in his mind, says his wife, Pam.

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