Spring is planting time in America’s farm country but the usual optimism is clouded by extreme weather.
If you’re looking for uplift in this relentless news cycle, look to America’s heartland. Spring planting always stirs up an air of optimism in farm country.
If you work as a producer in agriculture, you have to be an optimist. Who else but a farmer would borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars in the spring against the possibility of growing crops that might pay off those loans at harvest time, and maybe even generate a profit — or the crops might fail and put you (probably deeper) in debt? Farmers know full well the odds stacked against “success,” from plant diseases and pests to disruptive geopolitics, volatile global commodity markets or extreme weather.
But every year, we return to the task with cautious optimism, despite realities over which we have little or no control —especially the weather, which has become more extreme in recent years. What’s that definition of insanity — something about expecting different results?
I’ve just returned from a visit to our family farmlands in Southeast Missouri, the Bootheel as it’s called, a tag of land 37 miles wide that hangs down 35 miles from the state’s otherwise straight southern boundary line. This is the northern tip of the greater Mississippi River Delta region, a swath of fertile soil on either side of Big Muddy from St. Louis to New Orleans, created by hundreds of years of overflow from the river that left rich silt deposits beyond its banks during the annual spring floods. Now, protected by levees, denuded of its cypress forests, and drained by a massive ditch system, the Bootheel is part of a river-centered “spine” of agricultural activity within the greater Midwest, the breadbasket of American corn, wheat, and soybean production.
This spring, U.S. farmers plan big increases in commodity crop planting this year: an estimated 49.9 million acres of wheat, up 9% from 2022, and 37.5 million acres of winter wheat, up from 13%. Some 92 million acres of corn are planned, up 4%, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s annual Prospective Plantings report which provides the first official, survey-based estimates of U.S. farmers’ annual planting intentions. Soybean growers intend to plant 87.5 million acres, up slightly from last year. With good spring weather so far, and hopes of making up for low prices, farmers aim to plant record-high acreage in Illinois, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and 100,000 or more acres in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
If you work as a producer in agriculture, you have to be an optimist. Who else but a farmer would borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars in the spring against the possibility of growing crops that might pay off those loans at harvest time.
These robust figures indicate confidence that crops, especially grain, can turn profits despite price volatility — if the weather cooperates. And there’s the rub.
In recent years, weather events have become more extreme and more frequent. Last year, the spring rains were relentless, flooding fields for days on end at planting time, causing significant delays in getting seeds into the ground. On some of our land, corn was planted over a month late, cutting into yield. The following drought hit when the plants were pollinating and hurt yields; over two months, we received just a half inch of rain.
In what has become an increasingly common event, some crops were declared failed. The good news is that increased access to federally supported crop insurance kicked in; if failure is declared early enough and soybeans can then be planted on the failed field, the total adds up to a decent return on investment. The bad news is that a crop failure records the output of that crop as “0,” which lowers the four-to-ten-year average of production by which insurance is calculated. That means that next year’s crop can only be insured for a lesser value.
As if unprecedented spring rains and summer drought were not enough, at harvest time last fall, Mississippi River water levels fell to historic lows, temporarily halting the shipping of commodity crops downriver to New Orleans — which caused a pause in market purchases. Some 92% of U.S. agricultural exports and 78% of feed grain and soybean exports are produced in the greater Mississippi River Basin; that’s part of the $130 billion in goods the river carries annually. No barges, no exports.
In recent years, weather events have become more extreme and more frequent. Last year, the spring rains were relentless, flooding fields for days on end at planting time, causing significant delays.
This spring in the Bootheel has been different. Planting weather has been good, with periodic one- to three-inch rains providing enough dry time to get seeds into the ground, and enough moisture to stimulate plants’ emergence.
This year’s river problem, however, is the opposite of last year’s. The greater Delta region is bracing for historic flooding. In the upper Midwest, the record snowfall from this year’s extreme winter storms, frozen in place by below-normal temperatures in March, has quickly melted in record April heat, and the water is now working its way down the river. River levels from Minneapolis to Burlington, Iowa are approaching the highest in over 20 years, dating back to the historic floods of 2001.
High water is as big a threat to agricultural shipping as the historical low water levels of last year. A flooding Mississippi River is a faster-flowing and turbulent one which is treacherous to navigate, disrupting cargo traffic as much as low levels (see Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi). And lately, the river has shown signs of becoming more unmanageable. Historic floods have occurred with increasing frequency: in 1983, 1993, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2017, and 2019.
Mississippi River flood, 2011. Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture
There are other extreme weather issues in the air — literally. The Mississippi River flood in 2011 was accompanied by a notable outbreak of tornado activity; nearly 1,700 storms killed 553 people in a single season. This year has seen 459 confirmed tornadoes. Further, a recent study by researchers at the National Severe Storms Laboratory found “a significant upward trend in tornado frequency” in parts of the Midwest and the South, in an eastward shift from Kansas and Oklahoma. Three years ago, a tornado in our immediate area destroyed several of the expensive pivot systems that irrigate crops. My trips to visit our farmlands in the past two years have included getting caught in more local tornado events than in the past.
The collective impacts of these extreme weather events hits everyone’s lives at the bottom line, not just the 1% of the U.S. population actively engaged in farming.
At the macro weather level, 2023 is the end of the third year in a row of La Niña, a rare “triple-dip” event of cooler than normal sea-surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific which affects weather patterns across the U.S. The current La Niña, an unusually prolonged one, began in 2020 and returned for its third consecutive northern hemisphere this winter, creating record low and high temperatures, huge snowfalls and flooding rains. The most recent “triple-dip” occurred in 1998-2001, and affected weather patterns throughout the growing season, especially with increased stretches of drought. Now, farm country is bracing for the next hit — El Niño — which will disrupt weather patterns with excessive heat. This year’s ocean warming edition is being preceded by record, rapid ocean heating that has alarmed scientists.
The collective impacts of these extreme weather events hit everyone’s lives at the bottom line, not just the 1% of the U.S. population actively engaged in farming. From climate-related shocks in production to supply chain issues, rising commodity prices will result in higher prices for food on supermarket shelves. The costs of climate change will be increasingly counted in everyday accounting.
When asked about changing weather patterns, our farmer-partners say that they have never seen the likes of last spring and summer. And this is a group well-accustomed to changeable weather. While this spring has been a good one, what comes next weather-wise until harvest time is a known unknown — this year, that’s a very big category.