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Weather The Storm

August 6, 2014
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A new reality for production ag means big costs

One hour and 10 minutes. That is the time it took 4" of rain to accumulate on Ray Gaesser’s farm one spring day. Staring at the rain gauge and his parked planter, the normally gregarious Gaesser grows solemn. The climate of farming, as he knows it, is changing.

"During the last several years, we’ve seen an increase in rains that exceed 3" per hour or dump 6" to 8" per day," says Gaesser, who farms 6,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Corning, Iowa. Rain delayed planting by three weeks this year. "Weather has caused erosion in our no-till system where we hadn’t had it before," he says. "We seem to be in a cycle of extreme weather."

Nationwide, eight of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have occurred since 1990.

Farmers around the U.S. feel the change. Periods of excess precipitation follow seasons of rain scarcity. 

The past several years showcase the types of struggles farmers could face in the future because of climate change. In 2011, a record-breaking $10.8 billion in crop insurance payments went to farmers, many of whom suffered historic flooding. The severe drought of 2012 resulted in indemnities of $17.4 billion, an all-time high. USDA distributed fewer payments in 2013, yet the $12 billion tab is nearly six times higher than what it spent in fiscal year 2000, notes the Congressional Research Service.

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Truth or Myth? As farmers walk the line between cracked earth and muddy fields, two new reports have reignited the climate change discussion. This spring, the 5th International Panel on Climate Change report confirmed the earth continues to warm. The period from 1983 to 2012 was "likely" the warmest 30-year period of the past 1,400 years in the Northern Hemisphere.

Less than six weeks later, the Barack Obama administration released the National Climate Assessment, with recommendations for reducing greenhouse gases that might require the ag industry to make significant capital investments. The document—mandated by Congress and produced by more than 300 experts, states: "Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present."

That reality is clear to Gene Takle, who does not easily wake from sleep in the middle of the night—except when it storms. The cracks of thunder and flashes of lightning don’t frighten him; they give him peace. They mean the Midwest’s weather patterns are holding.

USDA forecasts much of the nation will warm by between 1.8°F and 3.6°F in the next 40 years, more so in the center of the country.

As global temperatures rise during the next 35 years, those midnight storms will become memories, says Takle, an Iowa State University climatologist with the Regional Climate Modeling Laboratory. Two weeks between rains instead of one will be significant for crops. 

"Global warming is bringing a whole new climate to the farm," says Takle, who helped author the agriculture chapter in the federal climate report. "We are going through a period where there are some favorable changes occurring that have increased production, but this isn’t likely to last." The climate change he describes is more nuanced than the phrase "global warming" suggests: Farms might see colder and wetter weather in some places. 

Scientists agree the climate is shifting, but the debate continues on how much change is due to humans and the production of greenhouse gases (GHG). A United Nations panel projects global surface temperatures likely will exceed 2.7°F above preindustrial levels by century’s end and will range from 0.54°F to 8.64°F above 1986 to 2005 levels, depending on GHG emissions.

Developing regions face trade risks as food production adapts. For example, Sub-Saharan Africa had agricultural exports in 2011 of $34 billion.

View From the Field. Back on the farm, the saying "corn knee-high by the Fourth of July" no longer applies. Crops mature more quickly than ever. From 1981 to 2005, the Midwest saw average corn planting dates advance by 0.40 days per year, according to an Iowa State study. The average soybean planting date advanced by 0.49 days.

Less predictable are what the U.S. Global Change Research Program calls "extreme weather events," which the group has tracked since 1960. Incidences are up for these events, which occur at random intervals and shove yields beneath the trend line.

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