By Denitsa Tsekova and Brian K. Sullivan
After suffering through the wettest 12 months since at least 1895, U.S. farmers have plans to adapt next year to what some forecasters say may be an increasingly soggy new normal for the nation’s midsection.
The plans include bigger and faster tractors to speed up planting, quick-growing seeds and more extensive use of cover crops and drainage tiles to keep flooding fields intact. But there’s problems here too, growers say: The tractors are costly, the short-season seeds have lower yields and cover crops and tiling take time and effort.
While farmers have long been locked in a give-and-take tussle with Mother Nature, trends tracked by scientists and forecasters over decades suggest the merciless rains and wild storms that drastically delayed planting times this year could be a weather standard moving forward.
“On a decadal time scale, yeah, you’re going to see record after record falling,” said Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois in Urbana. “What used to be a one in 100 or one in 500-year event is going to become much, much more common.’’
The regional rains are part of an “increasing trend over four decades,” showing more and more moisture for the region, Wuebbels said.
From June 2018 to May of this year, the contiguous U.S. suffered through its wettest 12-month period going back to 1895, when the federal government first began keeping formal records. For months, a relentless pulse of storms left fields unplanted, highway and rail traffic snarled, and barges struggling with fierce river currents, when they could move at all.
Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, blames the Midwest deluge on reduced ice cover on the Bering Sea and warmed up waters off the southeast coast. The two high-pressure systems increased the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, she said, and locked the rainstorms in place.
“It’s hard to imagine that climate change did not rest a heavy thumb on the scale,” Francis said by telephone.
Farmers, meanwhile, are doing what they always do: Adapting. “Next year you’re going to see guys, when they start, they’re going to start and run very hard” to get fields planted as quickly as they can, said Jeff Kirwan, who grows corn and soybeans in Mercer County, Illinois.
Farmers are looking for more ways to convey damaging water away from plants, “terraces and things like that,” according to Steve Stierwalt, a farmer in Champaign County, Illinois and president of the Association of Illinois Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
At his place, we’ll “probably get either another planter or a bigger planter, or something that can cut our planting time in half” moving forward,” Stierwalt said.
He’s not alone, according to Matt Arnold, an agriculture analyst at Edward D Jones & Co LP. “With a really short window to actually get crops into the ground, farmers have been investing into the latest and greatest in terms of high horsepower tractors and planters capable of traveling at faster speed.”
Evan Hultine, a corn grower in Bureau County, Illinois, is moving in a different direction. He’s already switched about half his crop to shorter-maturing seeds for those that produce full long-season corn.
That’s helped in getting a crop past the weather, he said, but it means “giving up a lot of yield potential.”
The short-maturity seeds are in demand across the region, “and hard to get hold of,” said Daniel Kowalski, the lead analyst at Cobank Acb, in a telephone interview.
Hultine too sees more farmers turning to new planting equipment that can help shorten the time needed to put seed into the ground. “However, you still have to be able to afford to pay for that equipment,” he added. “And really, not every field allows you to utilize that technology.”