For the past eight months, the southern two-thirds of the U. S. heartland has been gripped by a persistent drought.

Across the Midsouth, wells and ponds have gone dry, prompting USDA to appropriate funds for emergency livestock water. At the same time, near-record snows paralyzed Northeastern cities.

What's going on here? Why all the wacky weather, and what's it hold for farmers making plans for the coming crop season?

"Weather cycles are now more erratic than usual," says Larry Acker, of 3F (Futures, Farming, Finance) Forecasts, Polo, IL. "General soaking rains will be few and far between this next growing season, especially in the South. If you draw a line from St. Louis through about Paducah, KY, the area south of that is much drier and warmer than normal, and that pattern should continue."

Acker keeps track of short- and long-term weather cycles around the globe and how they may affect the mid-continental U.S. He started building a computer base of historical weather data more than 20 years ago. Acker observes weather phenomena around the earth, then peers through the lens of history to project what climatic capers are most likely to beset us.

Take La Nina, the cooler-than-normal belt of water in the mid-Pacific that is influencing weather in both North and South America.

"This year may be the swan song for La Nina, but it still bears watching," says Acker. "This has been one of the longest-running La Ninas in history."

Taking into account the abnormally dry fall season of 1999, Acker applies his forecasting technique to the coming crop year.

"Let's start with cotton, because I think cotton will be the big bull move in 2000," he says. "Spring across the South will be warmer and windier overall, but moisture should be ample until mid-May.

"For most of the southern Plains, look for a dry period between about May 18 and June 9 - with little rain and windy conditions," he continues. "The cotton crop will get planted, but dry weather will make both growers and speculators nervous. Prices should rally, at least a little."

If expected showers materialize over the Cotton Belt in August, Acker looks for a crop of 15.8 million bales, which should keep prices relatively strong through summer and into fall.

"It will be a different situation in the Corn Belt," Acker forecasts. "Rainstorm activity will be spotty, with a few severe storms. A lot of areas won't get much rain, and temperatures will be above normal by early April. The driest period of the spring season will be from May 4 through June 2, so most corn and bean crops should be planted on time."

For June, Acker calls for near-normal rainfall and temps over most of the region. Starting after mid-July, though, rains will slacken or stop altogether in areas. Temperatures will rise above normal in late July, and that cycle could last until the third week of September, when cooler weather is expected.

"Although the growing season looks shaky, I expect a corn crop of 8.45 billion bushels," he says. "That's based on a harvested crop of about 73 million acres, and depends on the timing of those scattered rains we expect."

Soybeans should get planted on time and off to a good start. But the drier weather Acker expects from late July to Aug. 22 could do real damage to the crop. Beans will be blooming and setting pods during that period.

"The best soybean crops may come to producers who plant relatively late and catch the rains that begin about Aug. 20," he says. "But you can expect wide variations in yield in relatively short distances."

Acker estimates the 2000 U.S. soybean crop at 2.55 billion bushels - virtually the same as last year's total.

"No disaster, certainly, but not many bumper bean crops either," he adds. "Prices should rally somewhat going into June, but I don't expect very high-priced soybeans this year, unless the South American crop is a bust - and that isn't likely."

Most years, Acker has been more accurate than many other prognosticators who forecastboth the weather and crop production. He publishes a newsletter, with regular updates, based on his analysis of weather cycles. Acker will send you his most recent publication if you contact him at 3F Forecasts, 1710 North Summer Hill Road, Polo, IL 61064. Phone: 815-946-3001; fax: 815-946-2003.