Change At The Climate Divide

Historically, the 100th meridian marked the shift from the wet east to the drier west. Now that's changing in five states the meridian runs through. Harvest Public Media presents stories from North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma that look at what those changes are and how farmers and rural communities are experiencing and adapting to them.

Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton / for Harvest Public Media

Southeastern Oklahoma averages at least 40 inches of rain per year, so its agricultural industry focuses primarily on livestock and timber. But an extended drought in 2011 and 2012 cost Oklahoma’s farmers and ranchers more than $2 billion in losses statewide

A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Billy Smallwood is a fifth-generation rancher and hay baler who has a cow-calf operation in Pushmataha County. He says that year, he made almost no hay.

“You know, a hay baler doesn’t like to buy hay, but we had to buy hay,” he remembers.

Kyler Zeleny / for Harvest Public Media

On a still November day, Patrick O’Neal, the burn coordinator at Kansas State University’s Konza Prairie Biological Station near Manhattan, Kansas, convenes a meeting about a planned fire.

“The goal today is to burn about 52 acres,” he says, pointing out the specific sections on a map.

The clear blue sky and minimal wind provide inviting conditions. A short time later, the fire crew arrives at the first spot, and members pull on firefighter coats and helmets.

courtesy University of Nebraska Lincoln

Unprecedented flooding last year devastated many towns across the Midwest that are still struggling to come back. As Nebraska’s climate continues to shift, one riverside town wants to protect itself from another spring like 2019.

But the process has been plagued by bureaucratic setbacks and legal woes: uncertainty maintains a dominant presence across Winslow, Nebraska’s community.

Brad Van Osdel / South Dakota Public Broadcasting

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.

In North Dakota, A Changing Climate Threatens Crop Diversity

Mar 23, 2020
Christopher Walljasper / for Harvest Public Media

As Doyle Lentz drives out over his farm, just 20 miles south of the Canadian border, he expects to see snow and ice for miles. This is January, after all, in Rolette County, North Dakota. But this year, the horizon is broken up by fields of windblown wheat, piles of snow-packed, cut canola and stands of corn and sunflowers.

“That whole field should have been waist high when we harvested. As the rains and snows came, it just continued to flatten it. And of course, the quality just became terrible,” says Lentz, who farms around 6,000 acres that also includes barley and soybeans. “Consequently, it wasn’t worth harvesting. We hope to burn it, but with all the rain and snow, we don’t know what we’re going to do with it.