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Rainy fall adds to farmers' soggy woes

Wettest year on record keeps 19 million acres idle, threatens next spring’s crops by JOHN SCHWARTZ THE NEW YORK TIMES | November 22, 2019 at 1:57 a.m.

The damage from the destructive spring flooding in the Midwest has been followed in parts of the country by a miserable autumn that is making a bad farming year worse, with effects likely to be felt into next spring.

Even the widespread flooding in the spring was worse for many farmers than the images of sodden river towns would suggest, said Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois. While the images of overwhelmed levees were dramatic, "that's not the real story." Across much of the Midwest and Northern Plains soils were saturated throughout the spring, he said, and many farmers couldn't get crops in the ground or had to delay planting until perilously late in the season. "Farmers told me in eastern Illinois it felt like they were in a monsoon from April until May."

It was the wettest year on record for the lower 48 states, with the kind of extreme rainfall events that are increasingly associated with climate change. And then fall came in with unseasonably heavy rains and snow. That was the case for Aaron Heley Lehman, a farmer in central Iowa and president of the Iowa Farmer's Union. "This has definitely been a bad year for almost all farmers in Iowa, even if you weren't on river bottom ground and having your grain bins explode and your land under water for weeks and weeks at a time," he said. "It was still a very rough year."

The Department of Agriculture tracks how many acres of insured farmland went unplanted, a statistic referred to as prevented planting, and this year's figures are the highest since the agency started reporting the figures in 2007. Overall, farmers reported being unable to plant on some 19 million acres for all crops in 2019 with more than 70% of those acres occurring in the rain-soaked Midwest.

For the two most important Midwestern crops, corn and soybeans, the 2019 figures showed 11.4 million acres for corn and 4.5 million acres for soybeans that went without crops being planted.

That's 13% of the total corn acreage in the United States that went unplanted, and nearly 6% of total soy acreage. By comparison, 2013 was another wet year but had just 3.9% and 2.3% unplanted acres.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, farm subsidies from sources like trade assistance, disaster assistance and federally subsidized crop insurance made up 40% of farm income in 2019, $33 billion out of an expected $88 billion total.

The intense downpours are characteristic of climate change, said Barbara Mayes Boustead, an author of the chapters on the Midwest and Northern Great Plains in the National Climate Assessment, a collaboration of 13 federal agencies and departments. While linking individual weather events is a complex and time-consuming process involving attribution science, the trends are clear, she said. "Climate change has changed the atmosphere itself," Boustead said. So even if it is difficult to prove the precise impact of climate change on this year's season, she added, "events like this become more likely as climate changes."

And the rain is not just intense, but comes at inopportune times, said Dennis Todey, the director of the Agriculture Department's climate hub in Ames, Iowa. Rains are falling hard not in the middle of the growing season, when it could be of the most use, but in the spring and fall, "exactly the time we don't want more water on our cropland."

"Almost all farmers agree that they've been dealing with much more volatile conditions," said Lehman, the Iowa farmer.

Beau Bateman, a farmer near Grand Forks, N.D., said he saw signs of climate change in farming's problems. "We're seeing more extremes than we've encountered before," he said. After the wettest September on record, the soil has become so saturated that it won't support heavy equipment like combines and beet harvesters. "They sink in and get stuck," Bateman said. His farming cooperative, he added, had nothing but trouble getting its sugar beets out of the ground. "We were only able to harvest two-thirds of our crop."

Irwin, of the University of Illinois, said that the year's planting had been further complicated by confusing messages from Washington, including an offer of aid to farmers from the Agriculture Department in May to help them deal with the effects of trade tensions with China with $16 billion in price supports if they planted crops. The announcement came later in the year than farmers in many areas usually plant, but hard-pressed farmers decided to try to get the benefits of the program and planted anyway. Irwin estimated that at least 5 million acres were planted under risky conditions. "It turned out to be a really bad bet," he said.

Business on 11/22/2019

Print Headline: Rainy fall adds to farmers' soggy woes

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