Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series on the impact the 2018 drought has on farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses in northern Missouri. It is the hardest-hit area of the state.
It’s a hot, dry day in north-central Missouri as Joe Clevenger appears outside of the white farmhouse. As temperatures climb toward 95 degrees F yet again, the corn and soybean farmer makes his way across the burnt, brown lawn and exclaims, “Have I got some fields to show you!”
Hopping into his pickup truck, we drive just a few miles down the road. Through the view from the front window, it is easy to see the toll the 2018 drought is taking on crops. Clevenger opens the door and steps down onto the bare soil. Walking a few feet, he reaches for a corn ear and plucks it from the stalk. The stalk nearly topples over.
POLLINATION PROBLEMS: The heat did not allow corn to pollinate and is creating loss of kernels. Many corn ears look like this one in northwest Missouri; however, some plants did not even produce an ear.
“There’s not much here,” Clevenger says, peeling back the already dried-down outer shuck. The ears are just about 4 inches long. “They just did not pollinate. We reached 105 degrees right in the middle of pollination. And there was no moisture. We are looking at total crop losses on some acres.”
Clevenger’s fields have only received 1.4 inches of rain since mid-June. “We have not received a good run off rain in over a year,” he says.
His farm is in the bull’s-eye of the region of the state the U.S. Drought Monitor Index puts at a D3 intensity — or extreme drought. More than 20 counties in the state are experiencing the same dry conditions. For the fourth-generation farmer, the 2018 drought is worse than 2012. “This year we just went for a longer period without rain, and we had such heat,” he says.
It is a far different story than Clevenger and other farmers thought would be written for the 2018 crop season.
The year started out well. Planting conditions were nearly perfect. Clevenger is a no-till farmer leaving residue on the soil. He even plants ryegrass as a cover crop. In some years, these practices can leave farmers waiting for fields to dry out from a wet winter, but that was not the case this year. The ground condition was not too wet or too dry in 2018. The seeds went into the soil seamlessly. He planted his corn crop in late April and early May. The soybean crops saw similar planting conditions.
Then the heat settled in. Many areas of the state saw triple-digit highs, putting May 2018 as the hottest on record dating back to 1962, according to Pat Guinan, University of Missouri Extension climatologist.
Dryness intensified across Missouri in June, with most of the state reporting below-normal rainfall. Guinan says it was the third consecutive month with below-normal precipitation, and the driest April-through-June period since 2012.
To find a drought similar in length and scope of damage, Clevenger says it takes going back 35 years, to 1982-83. “Then, we were going after 4-bushel beans,” he says. “We had to go in and harvest then, since there was no crop insurance.” Clevenger says years like these show the importance of crop insurance to farmers and ranchers. “I would not go into the field without it nowadays.”
STRUGGLING SOYBEANS: Joe Clevenger inspects his soybean fields near Hamilton, Mo. Many of the plants do not even have pods.
Waiting on soybeans
While the Caldwell County, Mo., farmer has all but given up on his corn crop, he holds out hope for soybeans.
On a dusty gravel road, he comes to a stop. “This field look promising,” he says, pointing toward the green plants.
This year, fields saw variable stands. Some plants did not make it out of the ground; others emerged but failed to thrive. “Some just did not set pods,” Clevenger says. Then, to add insult to injury, those that did survive are showing signs of sudden death syndrome, or SDS.
“When we say beans are resilient — well, this year, that will be tested,” he adds. As the dry weather persists into August, Clevenger’s optimism fades. “It is just too long without moisture, and too much heat,” he says. “We are really hurting this year. These crops have taken about as much as they can. There is just nothing left.”
Clevenger planned, purchased and prepared for this year’s crop. He spent time planting and tending to corn and soybean plants. Then painstakingly watched as fields dried up and died. Despite all his efforts, he is looking at crop failures.
Still, like others in this northern region of Missouri, Clevenger will start again next spring. “Of course I will be back,” he says. “Farming is my passion. It is what I do.”