A Wet Year Causes Farm Woes Far Beyond the Floodplains

The damage from the destructive spring flooding in the Midwest has been followed in parts of the country by a miserable autumn that is making a bad farming year worse, with effects that could be felt into next spring.

Source: New York Times | Published on November 22, 2019

Hay bales float in flood waters amidst rows of corn in Nova Scotia's Colchester County.

Even the widespread flooding in the spring was worse for many farmers than the images of sodden river towns would suggest, said Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois. While the images of overwhelmed levees were dramatic, “that’s not the real story.” Across much of the Midwest and Northern Plains soils were saturated throughout the spring, he said, and many farmers couldn’t get crops in the ground or had to delay planting until perilously late in the season. “Farmers told me in Eastern Illinois it felt like they were in a monsoon from April til May.”

It was the wettest year on record for the lower 48 states, with the kind of extreme rainfall events that are increasingly associated with climate change. And then fall came in with unseasonably heavy rains and snow. That was the case for Aaron Heley Lehman, a farmer in central Iowa and president of the Iowa Farmers Union. “This has definitely been a bad year for almost all farmers in Iowa, even if you weren’t on river bottom ground and having your grain bins explode and your land underwater for weeks and weeks at a time,” he said. “It was still a very rough year.”

The Agriculture Department tracks how many acres of insured farmland went unplanted, a statistic referred to as prevented planting, and this year’s figures are the highest since the agency started reporting the figures in 2007. Over all, farmers reported being unable to plant on some 19 million acres for all crops in 2019 with more than 70 percent of those acres occurring in the rain-soaked Midwest.

For the two most important Midwestern crops, corn and soybeans, the 2019 figures showed 11.4 million acres for corn and 4.5 million acres for soybeans that went without crops being planted.

That’s 13 percent of the total corn acreage in the United States that went unplanted, and nearly 6 percent of total soy acreage. By comparison, 2013 was another wet year but had just 3.9 percent and 2.3 percent unplanted acres.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, farm subsidies from sources like trade assistance, disaster assistance and federally subsidized crop insurance made up 40 percent of farm income in 2019, $33 billion out of an expected $88 billion total.

The intense downpours are characteristic of climate change, said Barbara Mayes Boustead, an author of the National Climate Assessment’s chapters on the Midwest and Northern Great Plains. While linking individual weather events is a complex and time-consuming process involving attribution science, the trends are clear, she said. “Climate change has changed the atmosphere itself,” Dr. Boustead said. So even if it is difficult to prove the precise impact of climate change on this year’s season, she added, “events like this become more likely as climate changes.”

And the rain is not just intense, but comes at inopportune times, said Dennis Todey, the director of the Agriculture Department’s climate hub in Ames, Iowa. Rains are falling hard not in the middle of the growing season, when it could be of the most use, but in the spring and fall, “exactly the time we don’t want more water on our cropland.”

“Almost all farmers agree that they’ve been dealing with much more volatile conditions,” said Mr. Lehman, the Iowa farmer.

Some of the farmers in states like the Dakotas, who planted very late in the season, have already experienced heavy rains and early snows that are further hindering their ability to get crops in. Scott McDougall, who farms wheat, canola, soybeans and corn in Hansboro, N.D., said that he had been spared the drenching in the spring only to have the early snowstorms and unseasonable rains of fall make the fields inaccessible for him and his neighbors. “You couldn’t get into your fields,” Mr. McDougall said. “It was just a nightmare.” He said his soybean crop did not fare badly, but “the wheat will be a complete loss.”

Beau Bateman, a farmer near Grand Forks, N.D., said he saw signs of climate change in farming’s problems. “We’re seeing more extremes than we’ve encountered before,” he said. After the wettest September on record, the soil has become so saturated that it won’t support heavy equipment like combines and beet harvesters. “They sink in and get stuck,” Mr. Bateman said. His farming cooperative, he added, had nothing but trouble getting its sugar beets out of the ground. “We were only able to harvest two-thirds of our crop.”

Dr. Irwin of the University of Illinois said that the year’s planting had been further complicated by confusing messages from Washington, including an offer of aid to farmers from the Agriculture Department in May to help them deal with the effects of trade tensions with China with $16 billion in price supports if they planted crops. The announcement came later in the year than farmers in many areas usually plant, but hard-pressed farmers decided to try to get the benefits of the program and planted anyway. Dr. Irwin estimated that at least five million acres were planted under risky conditions. “It turned out to be a really bad bet,” he said.

A big reason for the bad outcome: Corn that got caught in the October rain and snow can’t be put in silos until it has been dried somewhat. Under good conditions, it dries in the field, but this year much of it has to be dried with heated air — something that cost farmers dearly, especially with spiking prices for propane. “This is adding stress to an already stressed community,” Dr. Todey said.

The year, as hard as it was for corn farming, does not mean shortages of food, feed, ethanol or exports. Farmers outside the worst-affected areas have been able to take up the slack to a degree, and stored corn can supplement much of the rest, Dr. Irwin said.

But it is adding to the financial squeeze on many farmers. Farm bankruptcies were already increasing, with filings in the year ending in September up 24 percent from the previous year, according to the Farm Bureau. Next year is likely to continue the trend, Dr. Irwin said. “For some of these operations,” he said, “it might take years of better conditions to make up for the losses on their June-planted corn.”

Financial woes translate into psychological stress for many in the agricultural community. “With all the economic stress going on, farmers and ranchers are at higher risk for suicide,” said David Brown, a behavioral health state specialist at Iowa State University who helped to start a mental health program this year to inform the farming community about risk signs.

For many farmers, the troubles of this year are likely to stretch into the next. Mr. McDougall, the North Dakota farmer, said the poor conditions in his area had kept him and his neighbors from much of the fall work that prepares the fields for spring planting. That will mean “round-the-clock work” in a few months if conditions are favorable.

“That’s part of farming, I guess,” he said. “You have to roll with the punches.”