With Their Boots On The Ground, South Dakota Farmers Weather Changing Climate

Mar 23, 2020

While top scientists from around the world point to data that says the drier rangeland climate found west of the 100th Meridian has shifted east in the last three decades, those living and farming in eastern South Dakota feel they are seeing the opposite: A wetter weather pattern.

As precipitation has increased, farmers with their boots on the ground, like Paul Hetland near Mt. Vernon, South Dakota, say they’re struggling to adapt and stay in business.

Hetland, who farms with his brother, harvested what crops he could last fall, but heavy machinery on soggy fields caused a lot of damage throughout the season.

Fluctuations in the freeze-thaw cycle and the timing of snow and rain contribute to the challenges on Hetland's fields.
Credit Brad Van Osdel / South Dakota Public Broadcasting

“In terms of tire tracks, rutting, things like that as we tried to plant these crops, harvest these crops and even just take care of the ground that didn’t get planted,” Hetland says.

This isn’t how he likes to farm. He’s a no-till farmer with a plan for managing the average rainfall and his type of soil. But last year he says he caught more than 50 inches of rain in his gauge while the average amount for his area is 37 inches. The current wet weather is forcing him to only look at short term solutions, which makes him uncomfortable because this spring he’s going to have to till.

“When you’re doing something that you know is probably not the right thing for a long-term scenario, I mean it’s something I’d just as soon not do,” Hetland says. “It adds expense, it takes time and I feel like we’re not doing it as we intended or the best way that we could.”

Last year was a record setting one, according to South Dakota’s state climatologist Laura Edwards, who describes 2019 as relentlessly wet.

Farmer Paul Hetland says his 2019 harvest near Mt. Vernon, South Dakota, damaged his fields in ways that will require him to till this year, something he prefers not to do.
Credit Brad Van Osdel / South Dakota Public Broadcasting

“It started off with a tough winter, with very cold temperatures and consistent cold temperatures starting at the end of January that carried through the rest of that winter season,” Edwards says,” “and in February of that year, it was just line storms that came through that would drop two to four inches of snow.”

Then in March came the bomb cyclone that started a cycle of flooding along the Missouri River in South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa with three inches of rain on top of the snow. And it didn’t let up. She knows of some producers in eastern South Dakota measuring more than 100 inches of rain in the last two years.

Paul Hetland works on equipment he will use on his South Dakota farm.
Credit Brad Van Osdel / South Dakota Public Broadcasting

She says one producer told her 2019 was the worst year he’s ever had—before that, Edwards says his worst was in 2018.

South Dakota producers rely on having four seasons, she says, with winter being the driest.

“We don’t really know the answer to what caused it, you know, if there’s one factor or multiple factors at different times of year. It’s a tough puzzle and I don’t know that we’ll ever have the full answer.”

Edwards says the climate change predictions of the 1990s are happening now.

“The increase in precipitation, though, is a trend that we’re seeing in the long run in recent decades, the last century, in South Dakota,” she says.

As for the climate conditions of the 100th meridian moving, she says the wet seems to be moving west, rather than the dry edging east, and that’s a factor as farmers decide what to grow.

Wet winters and rain on top of frozen ground are setting up new challenges for spring planting.
Credit Brad Van Osdel / South Dakota Public Broadcasting

About two hours northeast of Hetland’s farm, South Dakota Farm Bureau President Scott VanderWal grows crops and raises cattle in Volga, South Dakota.

VanderWal, who’s also vice president of the American Farm Bureau, says the wet 2019 season is going to have a long tail. Weeds grew where crops couldn’t, and the soil nutrients are not where they should be. He says on his farm, conditions are warmer and wetter that in the past.

“It’s a longer-term trend, like the last 10-15 years,” he says. “When I was a kid, my dad used to say you can’t really raise corn west of De Smit or Huron, [South Dakota].”

Scott VanderWal, vice president of the American Farm Bureau and president of the South Dakota Farm Bureau, raises cattle and crops near Volga, South Dakota.
Credit Brad Van Osdel / South Dakota Public Broadcasting

That was consistent with the old theory of the 100th Meridian. But now corn is scattered across the state and soybeans are seen further to the north replacing wheat in those fields.

VanderWal adopts the attitude of doing what’s best for your own operation to survive another year.

“I always tell people we have to plan for average and pray for the best and manage our risk for the worst,” he says.

As producers look to the 2020 growing season, the ground is already saturated and yet there could be drought conditions by August. No one really knows.

Editor’s note: Cara Hetland is distantly related, by marriage, to Paul Hetland who is her husband’s cousin. Cara Hetland is the news director at South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

This is the second story in a five-part series, "Change at the Climate Divide," about climate change and the Great Plains.

This reporting project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.