Warmer, wetter weather means farmers can plant some crops in regions once too cold and dry

Friday, October 8, 2010

Warmer, wetter weather has crops on the move

DES MOINES, Iowa — Warmer and wetter weather in large swaths of the country have helped farmers grow corn, soybeans and other crops in some regions that only a few decades ago were too dry or cold, experts who are studying the change said.

Bruce Babcock, an Iowa State University agriculture economist, said soybean production is expanding north and the cornbelt is expanding north and west because of earlier planting dates and later freezes in the fall.

“The Dakotas are pretty big corn producers now and soybeans have dramatically increased in North and South Dakota,” Babcock said.

The change is due in part to a 7 percent increase in average U.S. rainfall in the past 50 years, said Jay Lawrimore, chief of climatic analysis for the Asheville, N.C.-based National Climactic Data Center.

“The storm tracks are moving northward as the climate warms,” Lawrimore said.

The Earth’s temperature has risen about 1.3 degrees since the late 1800s, according to data from the NCDC, with the warming greatest over North America, Europe and Asia. Seven of the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, data from the center shows.

Even areas that are wetter on average can have long dry spells, such as large areas of the eastern U.S. that have been abnormally dry this summer. Especially dry this year have been northern Louisiana, Arkansas and western Mississippi, Lawrimore said.

Other areas, such as Rhode Island and Massachusetts, have been unusually wet, and it’s been even soggier in parts of the Midwest and northern Plains.

In Iowa, it was second-wettest summer on record, and the state is coming off its wettest three-year period ever, dating back to 1873, said Harry Hillaker, a state climatologist.

Babcock said the movement of crop patterns continues a 25-year-old trend.

The warm and wet weather has been coupled with successful seed company efforts to better adapt to the changes, Babcock said.

“Plant seed companies are making more productive, short-season varieties,” he said. “It’s both climate change but also technology change.”

Brad Rippey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist, said warming temperatures have made a big difference for crops such as corn and soybeans.

“It bends the boundaries of where crops can be planted,” Rippey said. “I think we’ll continue to see some shifting in crop patterns.”

For example, data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service show that in 1980, about 210,000 soybean acres were planted in North Dakota. That has gradually increased to more than 3 million acres in recent years.

Rippey also said cotton production is expanding into southern Kansas.

“That hasn’t been done in several years,” Rippey said.

Not all Midwest farmers are benefiting from the wet weather.

Jerry Main, who grows corn near Fairfield in southeast Iowa, said repeated deluges this spring prevented him from planting one-third of his 600 acres, making it one of the worst years he’s seen.

“What makes it worse is it’s the third wet year in a row for us in southeast Iowa and this year is the wettest of the three,” Main said.

But USDA meteorologist Eric Luebenhusen said others are doing well. He noted Nebraska and Illinois were especially wet this year, and he said Iowa has “almost become the tropical rain forest of Middle America.”

For the most part, Luebenhusen said, that’s good for farmers.

“With all the clouds and rain, you escape the extreme heat,” he said.

Babcock, the Iowa State professor, said the way the rain falls will have a huge impact on agriculture in the future.

Along with the trend toward more rain is an increasing frequency of torrential rains. Since 1958 those have increased 30 percent in the Midwest and 65 percent in the Northeast.

“It all depends how that comes about,” Babcock said. “In general, more rainfall means less irrigation and more ability to produce crops. Getting 4-inch rainfalls on a regular basis, that’s not good for crops.”

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