SPRINGFIELD – The state’s climatologist is predicting Illinois farmers are likely to endure more burdensomely wet weather while they try to plant cash crops this spring after suffering major losses as a result of a record-wet planting season last year.
April through June is likely to be wetter than normal in Illinois, according to rainfall projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, posing a challenge to corn and soybean farmers in the heart of planting season.
Right now those farmers are calculating their losses after suffering through the wettest January to June in state history last year.
Wettest of those months was May, which pushed planting of Illinois’ top two crops into June and July, when in an ideal year they can be in the ground in April.
The result: Corn and soybean production dropped 18% and 20%, respectively, according to final yield numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Farmers should expect to deal with an increased frequency of wet winters and springs,” said Illinois’ State Climatologist Dr. Trent Ford, who expects wetter-than-normal conditions to become routine.
After last weekend’s rainstorms, Ford said all but far northwest Illinois has had above-average January precipitation with half the month still to go. NOAA also projects a wetter-than-average February and March.
“The last couple of decades especially we’ve seen our winters be wetter than previous decades,” Ford said. “That doesn’t mean more snow necessarily, it just means overall more precipitation.”
For example, he said 20 of the past 25 winters in Peoria have been wetter than the city’s 120-plus-year average.
“Preparing for wetter-than-normal conditions to be more common or happen more frequently is something that farmers should be doing in Illinois,” Ford said.
Harm to farmers and crops
Continuous wet planting seasons present a challenge to farmers, as late planting pushes back their entire farm timeline.
Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, grows 1,600 acres of corn and soybeans on his farm east of St. Louis.
“Our planters started rolling on June 8, and it was not pretty,” he said.
Delayed planting causes delayed harvest, which can lower end-of-year yields like farmers saw in 2019. Late harvests also leave farmers less time for tilling fields before it gets too cold, which breaks up compacted soil and deep field ruts that can hold too much water.
Unfortunately for Meier, a lot of his tillage this fall “just did not happen.”
“Those factors will all go into next year’s crop,” he said.
Now in winter, Meier and other Illinois farmers are focused on getting tractors and equipment ready for planting season and hope they can better prepare their fields in the spring.
“Any sort of pre-planting or field preparation,” Ford said, however, “that gets delayed if we have a wetter-than-normal March or early April.”
Scientists point to climate change, also referred to as global warming, as a main contributor to increased rainfall.
As humans emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, they become trapped in the atmosphere. The more carbon in the atmosphere, the more moisture it can hold, increasing precipitation.
“The connections there are pretty strong,” Ford said of wetter planting seasons and climate change.
“In wet regions such as this, there’s abundant water supply at the surface,” he explained. “So as the atmosphere can take in more water, it does.”
Scientists also expect heavy downpours to increase.
“If we get a large amount of precipitation in one single event, what that can do is inundate the soil very quickly and then cause a lot of runoff and flooding,” Ford said.
Impact on the bottom line
Decreases in crop production not only hurt farmers, but trickle down into other industries like corn elevators and trucking companies, said Mike Doherty, a senior economist at the Illinois Farm Bureau.
“Most of our ag businesses off the farm, which are a big part of the downstate ag economy, they all have lower revenues as well,” Doherty said.
A soggy spring could also spell danger for Illinois farmers vulnerable to further crop losses, he said.
“You have costs no matter how much of a crop you raise,” Meier said, including rent, equipment and supplies.
Government aid and insurance payments helped lessen the impact of low crop production last year, but they do not fix the problem.
“There is a legitimate concern here,” Doherty said, as to the ability of some farmers to make debt payments on capital investments like machinery and land improvements.
“That percentage of farmers is going to be a higher percentage than it was last year at this time,” he said. “We are poorly poised to deal with that.”
Adapting to a wetter future
“There are strategies that can be taken to adapt to a wetter spring,” Ford said, including soil conservation, field treatments and improving drainage.
Meier said farmers may adapt by planting earlier, managing fields differently or using strains of crops that respond better to wet fields.
“You learn to start planning,” he said, adding that proactiveness helped him through periods of drought in the 1980s.
Constantly adapting to worsening weather conditions, though, might not work in the long term, especially since crop production is what brings in a farm’s income.
“Agriculture, especially here in the middle of the Grain Belt, is a volume business,” Doherty said. “You cannot make money off bushels you don’t grow or that you don’t have.”
Being at the mercy of Mother Nature, he said, will always be part of the job.
“This is the nature of farming. You can’t control the weather.”