By Rene Pastor

It was the one thing that was on the mind of most everyone at the 2013 annual outlook conference of the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Weather. Can a drought as horrific as 2012 spill into 2013?

“There are … risks that we can’t control,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in his keynote speech at the conference — directly alluding to the drought of last year.

USDA chief economist Joe Glauber added, “A key uncertainty is whether the historic drought of 2012 persists through 2013.”

Officials, farmers, and economists are all fretting about it. One year after the worst drought in a quarter century hammered crops in the U.S. Midwest Corn Belt and the U.S. Plains wheat zone, the level of anxiety about conditions during the spring and planting season remains high.

The impact of the drought was felt in the yields for corn and soybeans, grains widely used as animal feed, since the dry spell hit the Midwest and Plains regions the hardest.

Corn yields dropped to their lowest level since the 1990s at 123.4 bushels per acre, down over 16 percent from the previous season alone, while soybean yields fell 5.5 percent from the prior season to 39.6 bushels/acre, USDA figures showed.

Corn production in the U.S. fell to 10.78 billion bushels, down nearly 13 percent from the 12.36 billion bushel output in 2011/12. Soybean output slipped to 3.015 billion bushels from 3.094 billion last season, the USDA added.

The cost of feed hit the dairy and livestock sector, forcing them to pay more for their herds’ upkeep.

Glauber said that “another year of drought would likely result in large liquidation and hardship for livestock producers.”

The 2012 drought followed an equally devastating dry spell in Texas in 2011, the worst in the Lone Star state in 100 years. The state is the biggest cotton grower in the country.

Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist at the USDA, said the 2012 dry spell is “a once in a lifetime drought” which caused severe damage to crops in the country.

As for this year, Anthony Artusa of the U.S. Climate Prediction Center, an office under the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said drought was persisting and likely to intensify in several states in the country in 2013.

The states facing another dry spell include Kansas, the top wheat growing state in the country, Nebraska, a top corn and wheat grower, and Texas, which is entering a third year of dry conditions.

The states that seem to be on the mend are Iowa, the top corn grower in the United States, Illinois, Wisconsin, Missouri, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Artusa said the critical time for farmers in the central United States will be in late spring to early summer.

“From 35 to 60 percent of Central U.S. annual precipitation comes in May, June and July,” he said. “This is very, very important to these areas.”

Whether the rain will arrive to add relief is unknown, but farmers are hoping for more certainty from Congress when it comes to farm policy just in case the rain clouds fail to materialize.

Growers are encouraging lawmakers to pass a new five-year farm bill, which includes a mix of traditional income supports, conservation programs and research to help growers cope with risk.

In addition farmers are quickly buying up crop insurance — a public-private program administered by private companies and underwritten by the government that helps cushion the blow when the worst happens.

March 15 is the deadline for purchasing crop insurance for most spring crops.  Farmers, last year, paid more than $4 billion out of their own pockets to purchase insurance policies and industry leaders expect participation to remain high in 2013.

And because so much insurance was in place in 2012, there were no calls for costly, taxpayer-funded ad hoc disaster bills.

USDA Under Secretary Michael Scuse applauded crop insurers during a February industry meeting for a job well done in quickly processing claims and delivering indemnities to farmers dealing with disaster.

“The risk to our farmers and ranchers continues to increase each and every year, and not just by the weather but by the increases in cost of production,” Scuse concluded. “We need to continue this partnership and working together … and make sure that the American citizens have the most abundant, safest and most cost-effective food supply to be found anywhere in the world.”