Bet the Farm on Climate

Farmers know that weather is crucial, and unpredictable.

That’s one of the reasons we’ve studied it so much, keeping detailed weather data throughout the United States for well over a century. Just an example: back in the year 1895, the total precipitation during the month of January, averaged over the Ohio Valley climate division (which includes a lot more than just Ohio), was 3.58 inches of water (data from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

It’s shown in this graph by a small dot that has been circled in red, way over on the left (for January 1895) at height 3.58 (inches of precipitation):

There are a lot of dots, one for each and every month from January 1895 (far left) to May of 2019 (far right). I wasn’t kidding about “unpredictable.”

It is at least a little predictable, because there’s a seasonal pattern; the Ohio Valley tends to be wetter during May and June, drier during February. Instead of studying precipitation, let’s look at how different it was from average during each month. Zero means average for that month, positive numbers show wetter-than-average, negative numbers drier-than-average. Such numbers are called anomaly values, and we can graph them too:

Still unpredictable. Care to bet what it’ll be next month? Next year?

If you’re a farmer, you take that bet all the time. That’s your business! You are a gambler, and you bet on the weather. If your luck is bad, you lose. You could be parched in drought or drowned in flood, you can’t help it you lose. How is this any different from rolling the dice at the craps table at a casino in Las Vegas? Why do you take this risk again and again and again?

The essential difference between you, the farmer, and the gambler in Vegas, is that the odds are in your favor.

The Vegas gambler knows (if he’s smart) that the odds are stacked against him. He hopes to win, maybe win big, out of pure luck — and he has a realistic chance of doing so in the short run. But in the long run, the gambler loses, the house wins, because the odds are against the gambler. The casino is betting on the long run, and they know the math — the long run is a sure thing. It’s great when you know the odds, and they’re in your favor.

Farmers! The odds are in your favor. You have to work hard, you have to work smart, you have to tough out some hard times, but you will win in the long run. You will enjoy the fruit of your labor because the odds really are in your favor.

At least … they used to be.

What are the Odds?

There’s a name for “the odds” when it comes to weather: climate. The weather is unpredictable, a roll of the dice, but the odds themselves — if they don’t change — you can rely on. Sure, rain will come and rain will go and woe betide him who claims to know when and how much, but in the long run we know what it’ll be on average. We even know how high it gets and how low it goes, and how likely it is to reach such extremes.

We use those odds to plan. If you know how much rain you’ll get in most years (in the long run), you’ll know how to get the most from the good years. If you know the chances of extremes, and how extreme they get, you’ll know how to hedge your bets and get the right insurance. You can stack the odds in your favor — but only if you know what they are.

What do such “odds” look like? A good picture comes from a histogram, a bar graph showing how often different results have happened. Here it is for Ohio Valley precipitation anomaly, from January 1895 through December of 1975:

About 35% of the time, monthly total precipitation is between -1 and 0 inches different from average; maybe a little dry but still good. About 25% of the time it’s between 0 and +1 inches, a little wet but still good. Amounts no more than 2 inchess less or more than average are usually good enough to work with, and that happens 90% of the time.

These are the odds your grandfather learned, the odds you daddy grew up with. They work, they’re in your favor, and they didn’t change in any noticeable way.

Until about 1975. The odds started to change, and by the year 2000 had become noticeably different. We can compare the histogram for precipitation anomaly before 1975 (which we saw above) to that for data after the year 2000 here (pre-2000 is in red, the post-2000 in blue):

Now to the real point. The chances of 2 inches or more precipitation higher than average used to be only about 5%. Now that chance is about 10%. The odds themselves have changed, and the odds of too much rain have changed a lot.

Farmers: does that have an affect on your business?

What we now know is that the odds are going to keep changing. And they are not going to get more favorable, they’re going to get worse.

Predicting Disaster

Almost a year ago (last July) Iowa State University’s Ag Decision Maker published a forecast of how climate change would affect agriculture in Iowa. The prospect included an increase in precipitation, because of more humidity in a hotter atmosphere:

Higher warm season humidity leads to increased rainfall, extreme rain events, water-logged soils during planting season, soil erosion, and runoff of chemicals to waterways.

They pointed out that the changes had already begun.

Iowa’s annual average precipitation, including growing season precipitation, has increased in recent decades. Precipitation is expected to increase by about ten percent in the future. Most of the increase will come from wetter springs, with drier or little change in summers. However, summer precipitation will become more variable with a higher probability of intense rain events, leading to the potential for increased flooding and soil erosion.

What they didn’t expect was that the extreme rain events, water-logged soils, soil erosion, and runoff, would reach disaster levels so soon. As in, now.

Trouble in Paradise

Again and again the news is of heavy rain in the USA and its terrible effects. Not only have the floods been disastrous, the rain has been relentless, a fact recently emphasized in a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

The contiguous United States recently completed its wettest May-to-April period on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NOAA/NCEI) … In fact, it was the nation’s wettest 12-month period on record, regardless of which months are chosen.

That was through April of 2019. When the numbers came in for May 2019, it was even worse; we broke the record again. All of which has hit America’s farmers hard, says U.S.D.A. (emphasis my own):

One real-world impact from the nation’s wettest 12-month period has been a painfully slow 2019 planting pace for many major U.S. row crops. Soils in prime agricultural regions of the Plains and Midwest, which initially became saturated last autumn and were periodically blanketed with heavy snow during the winter of 2018-19, have remained wet into the 2019 planting season amid relentless spring rainfall. Exceptionally wet spring conditions are especially detrimental for planting operations for a variety of reasons, including concerns about soil compaction during seeding operations and the inability of saturated soils to support heavy farm equipment.

The current crisis isn’t a single storm; it was born from “saturated last autumn,” grew fat off “heavy snow during the winter,” and engorged itself on “relentless spring rainfall.”

As a result, U.S. corn planting failed to reach the halfway mark by May 19 for the first time on record. Only 49 percent of the intended U.S. corn acreage had been sown by May 19, 2019, compared to the previous record low of 50 percent on May 19, 1995. Similarly, just 19 percent of the U.S. soybeans had been sown by May 19, 2019, the least amount planted on that date since 1996. By June 2, 2019, both corn and soybean planting were proceeding at a record slow pace, with just 67 percent of the corn and 39 percent of the soybeans sown by that date. Previous June 2 planting records of 77 and 40 percent, respectively, had been set in 1995.

Was this disaster caused by climate change? That’s the wrong question.

The right answer was given by Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn. State university during his testimony to a congressional committee:

“And I would also like to emphasize that we’re using the term “natural disasters” but in many cases there is absolutely nothing natural about the disasters we are talking about. We’re not saying they have been caused by climate change, we’re saying that it has worsened them. That’s what the research shows.


Just when American farmers need them most, Politico reports that our very own U.S.D.A. has failed them. Instead of serving farmers the best information about the most important thing affecting agriculture — climate change, how to adapt, how to mitigate — they seem to be trying to keep important results under wraps.

Aaron Lehman, an Iowa farmer whose operation is roughly half conventional, half organic grain, said farmers are simply not getting much information from USDA related to how to adapt to or mitigate climate change.

“My farmers tell me this is frustrating,” said Lehman, who serves as Iowa Farmers Union President.

The gap in the conversation is particularly pronounced right now, he said, as an unprecedented percentage of growers across the Midwest have had difficulty planting their crops because fields are either too wet or flooded — an extreme weather scenario that’s been disastrous for agriculture this year.

“Farmers have a sense that the volatility is getting worse,” he said.

“You get the sense that it’s very sensitive,” Lehman said of the current dynamic around climate science at USDA. “But if you can’t have an open conversation about it, if you feel like you’re being shunned, how are we going to make progress?”

More to Come

Time was, very hard times only happened about once in 20 years. On average. In the long run. Those were the odds.

Now, it’s about once in 10 years. Farming has gotten harder, and is more expensive.

The bad news: it ain’t done yet. It’s going to get worse. That’s why you’re gonna need as much information as you can get.

The good news: American farmers ain’t afraid to work hard. And they’re smart. The challenge is incredible. Perhaps the farmers are up to the task — but it’s up to the rest of us to give them the support we can.

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18 responses to “Bet the Farm on Climate

  1. It’s sad to see WordPress’s advertising department placing health quackery video ads attacking farm foods on top of your blog posts. Clearly they don’t investigate the people who pay them for product placement.

  2. PS: the “powerinbox” company placing the scam ads has a terrible, terrible, truly bad reputation. WordPress really ought to hire an ethics officer in their ad department.

  3. Good article. The question that the USDA needs to answer is about odds of a crop failure for a given commodity given the change the midwest is experiencing. Then a farmer can work out adaptation.

  4. In Europe we have Climate Service Centres where businesses, non-profits and (local) governments alike get the information they need to succeed.

    Less systemic corruption and the denial it fuels makes a real difference in your life.

  5. A very interesting article about the extremely fast effects on vegetation of this extreme heat that occurred last 28 and 29 June, in the south of France.

    You can see that plants cannot really adapt to this extreme heat, even if for a short time.

    What is worrying is that many spontaneous forest fire ignitions seem to have been observed during the Friday afternoon, 29 June, when the heat reached its peak.

    Full article here (in French):
    What Future Following The Heatwave Of June 28, 2019?

  6. David B. Benson

    Plant trillions of trees:
    as well as stop burning fossil fuels.

  7. Donald Gisselbeck

    “Why do we need farmers? There’s plenty of food in the grocery stores.” I’ve heard several reports of people saying that seriously.

  8. Majura Wombat

    One extreme example of the way in which rainfall has become more lumpy is the case of North West Queensland in Australia. At the beginning of this year the region had endured 7 years of drought without a decent downpour. Then in January it started to rain but the initial smiles this brought to farmers quickly disappeared when the rain did not stop. Three years worth of rain fell in 10 days resulting in widespread flooding. Cattle drowned or died of cold and many of those that survived had to be shot – some farmers (Americans would call them ranchers) ran out of bullets. In all about half a million cattle are thought to have been lost. Fences were washed away – and in that part of Australia paddocks are large and fences long and expensive.

    . But IT DID NOT END THE DROUGHT, the water went just a quickly as it came, the parched soil did not absorb much. There is now a little green pick but not enough to end the drought conditions.

    Australia is used to extremes of weather but this is unprecedented.

    For a more detailed description see This is a Murdoch site so you will find no mention of Climate Change.

  9. Michael D Sweet.

    I am surprised that farmers have been so passive about climate change in the USA. Many farmers have long weather records for their properties and know the weather has changed. I have read of farmers discussing “strange weather lately” while they deny climate change.

    Many farmers will have to make big changes due to climate change. Burying your head in the sand does not mean the problem will go away.

  10. Recently back from a trip to NW and central Missouri and parts of Iowa. Yes, there are a lot of fields, parts of fields, etc. that are not planted, and it appears many will not be planted this year; I did see some fields with small plants. I don’t know if that was late planting. An offset not discussed too much in the news, the fields/parts of fields that were planted have spectacular crops at this point in the year. My small farm, which is now mostly hardwood trees, is extremely green. Lots of precipitation.

  11. David B. Benson

    New study: how much do climate fluctuations matter for global crop yields?
    2019 Jul 09

    Focuses on ENSO

  12. Tamino, as a farmer in Ohio I appreciate your analysis. This has been a spring we would all like to forget, following an extended wet harvest that we would also like to forget. As we focus on current conditions in our own back yard it is very easy to miss the big picture, both in space and in time. We should all be grateful for the vast global network of data collection and for the impartial application of statistics to these data.

    Agriculture is finely tuned to local climate. The corn and soybean varieties I grow are different from those of my friends just a two-hour drive north. Our growing season is a few days longer, meaning we can plant longer-season varieties without as much concern for an early frost. But we also have warmer summers and higher humidity, making resistance to fungal leaf diseases a critical trait in variety selection for us. In the thirty-five years since I started farming, our climate has changed. My friends to the north are now planting what I would have planted back in the 1980s. Field operations that we once routinely completed by the end of March, today we struggle to finish before planting, which now starts a week earlier, in mid-April.

    So long as these changes occur slowly enough, we can adapt. Farmers are more conservation-minded now than a generation ago, with no-till practices becoming the norm and much experimenting with “cover crops” to hold the soil between actual, marketable crops. Even so, soil erosion is still with us, owing perhaps to more frequent large rains. With soils near saturation, it doesn’t take much of a rain for water to begin running across the surface. And as you point out above, our soils are in this vulnerable state longer now than in years past.

    A gully in your field is impossible to ignore. It is a visible reminder of our impact on the world around us. We see the problem, so we fix it. A common goal is to leave the farm to the next generation in a condition at least as good as when we were entrusted to it. We take pride in a farm’s productivity and appearance. We have a sense of responsibility to it — a feeling of ownership. We are willing to sacrifice, to make the needed investments.

    There is a lesson to be learned here. As I see it, the problem with climate change is a lack of this sort of tangible, personal connection. There is no developing rut that forces you to take note, to take action. Instead, we are asked to trust the science — and many people, for political or religious reasons, are unwilling to take that leap of faith. (This includes many/most of my fellow farmers, suffering from a strangely wet spring.) We are asked to think globally, while our economic interests are strictly local. We are asked to think long-term — of the next hundred generations — while we have an emotional attachment only to the three of four generations that we know.

    Unless — and until — we have a collective sense of ownership of our global environment, we will continue to burn fossil fuels and enjoy the illusion of cheap energy, while passing the external costs on to generations unborn. Needed is a way to capture these external costs and make them part of the marketplace. I can think of no better way than a carbon tax, with 100% rebate, to make people aware of their own carbon footprint — and give them ways (and incentives) to affect change. For every argument I have heard against this plan (international trade, for example) there is a solution (tariffs on non-participating countries). Also, let’s stick to verifiable facts and avoid injecting politics into the situation. People are tribal by nature and you will lose half the population if they think “climate” is just a political issue, not one with solid science behind it. Finally, there is education. While it would certainly be nice if people were more scientifically literate in the future, they will still act in their own best economic interest. This is human nature and we need to acknowledge it. No plan has a chance of working unless it incorporates our propensity toward self-interest.

  13. This should be relavant reading:

    “For example, we find that events similar to the European record hot summer of 2003, which caused tens of thousands of excess deaths, would be very likely at least 24% less frequent in a world at 1.5 °C global warming compared to 2 °C global warming. Under 2 °C of global warming, we could expect such extreme summer temperatures in the historical record to become commonplace, occurring in at least one-in-every-two years.”

    “Climate extremes in Europe at 1.5 and 2 degrees of global warming”

    Farmers in Europe would have to deal with an extreme summer every second year even when we reach the 2° goal!