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.
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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