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This Spring’s Unyielding Rains May Become The New Normal As The Climate Changes

Katie Peikes
IPR file
A collapsed grain storage bin is visible beyond these flooded farm fields near Percival, Iowa. Widespread flooding has stymied planting this season across the Midwest.

Early, heavy and, in some areas, nearly relentless rains have led to a late planting season across much of the central United States, especially for corn.

Flooded fields can stymie planting — even if the rain lets up for a couple of days — because the ground is too wet and soft for heavy equipment. Even where farmers were able to plant, heavy rain sometimes required another round of seeds after the first ones were swamped.

Scientists have been predicting an increase in severe weather events due to climate change, meaning springs like this one may become the new normal.

“It’s very likely that this kind of flooding that we’re experiencing this year is going to be more likely in the future,” Iowa State University climate scientist Gene Tackle said.

Tackle explained that as oceans become warmer, more moisture will form over the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, wind patterns are intensifying. That combination brings more moisture to the Midwest in April, May and June.

“And then our thunderstorms are just fueled with this extra moisture, so it’s led to a very substantial increase in our precipitation,” Tackle said.

Farmers will need to adapt to the changes. One option showing promise is cover crops.

Shannon Moeller with the Iowa Seed Association said some farmers have told her fields where they used cover crops are drying out faster than bare fields because the roots of the living plants absorb water.

Moeller said conditions vary widely in Iowa, and that’s certainly the case in several Midwestern states, from Indiana to Kansas. There are some farmers who have planted all of their corn, Moeller said; for others, that’s still a ways off — and may not happen at all this year.

“I’m thinking of northern Iowa, Minnesota, those farmers that I’ve talked to still seem like they’re wanting to try to get corn in the ground,” she said, “even though it’s a little bit later and not ideal conditions.”

Some farmers will end up making prevented planting claims on their crop insurance for acres where they just couldn’t get a cash crop planted, she said.

But with the U.S. Department of Agriculture offering another round of bailout money to help ease the pain of the trade war with China and other countries, many farmers will do what they can to get a crop in the ground.

“My own farming family, we planted some corn over the weekend in some not-ideal conditions just because we were able to finally get the tractor through the field,” Moeller said.

Looking ahead across the Corn Belt, many areas are expecting even more rain this weekend and into next week.

Follow Amy on Twitter: @AgAmyinAmes

Credit Sylvia Maria Gross / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
In central Kansas, this field was flooded over the Memorial Day weekend. For full crop insurance coverage, farmers have to plant their corn and soybeans by certain dates, which, though mostly in June, vary by state and crop.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames