A Bitter Harvest

Despite bumper crops, U.S. farmers are having a dismal year

In the middle of the U.S., in the heart of Illinois, in the depths of Herb Steffen's 220 acres of ripe corn, everything seems plainly abundant. The sunny September sky is as wide and weightless as the fields' earthen smells are dark and sweet. Bugs buzz in and out of earshot and the perfectly golden stalks rustle in the breezes, but the quiet, like everything else, still seems pure and plentiful.

This week and last, in Illinois and elsewhere, the harvest intruded on that lush...