This story was originally published by Modern Farmer It is republished with permission.
Indiana wheat farmer Hans Schmitz made a tough decision this year. On a last-minute call, he only planted 100 acres of wheat, about half the amount of seed he usually plants. The soil will not allow anything else.
“We felt it was very dry. And when it rained at the end of the planting window, we had some issues with flooding,” he says.
Instead, Schmitz chose to grow soybeans – a less profitable crop. “We sacrificed a scale of $100 an acre.”
Schmitz isn’t the only farmer facing challenges due to climate change. However, these challenges have not yet led to lower crop yields. on the contrary. USDA statistics show that American farmers are producing more than ever before.
The United States saw record yields across the board in 2021 at 894 pounds per acre — an increase of 21 percent from the previous year — according to the USDA. Returns are down slightly from those records in 2022, but still above average.
Crop production has improved by multiple measures, says Ariel Ortiz Poupia, an applied economist who studies the impact of climate change on agriculture at Cornell University. “What you really want to know is how all the outputs grow relative to the inputs (such as water and fertilizer),” he says. “This gives you a measure of how productive you are.”
Even by this measure, agricultural productivity is on the rise, says Ortiz Popa, citing data from the USDA. Farm production outpaces population growth, he says, meaning farmers are still producing more than enough to feed everyone in the United States.
But researchers are wondering how long these technologies and innovations can stay ahead of a warming world. A 2021 Cornell study, for example, found that farmers have lost seven years of productivity growth over the past 60 years due to climate change.
Ortiz-Poupia notes that climate change has devastated farmland in parts of the Global South, leading to widespread malnutrition and mass migration, and he hopes that conflicts in those regions are not a precursor to what will happen in the United States as the world gets hotter and drier.
How does climate change affect crops?
Production has trended up in recent years, even as drought gripped the southern Sunbelt and heavy spring rains soaked Midwestern fields. Farmers and experts attribute the increased production to advances in agricultural techniques and a better understanding of how crops deal with bad weather.
“Farmers have large, high-speed, GPS-controlled planters that can grow a lot of crops in a short period of time even though the planting window may be shorter,” says Fred Bello, a crop physiologist and professor at the University of Illinois.
However, as stated below, “weather is the number one factor affecting crop yield.”
In some ways, rising temperatures are helping farmers. Warmer weather has extended planting seasons by 10 to 15 days in the Midwest. But experts say the harmful conditions far outweigh any benefits.
“We’re seeing warmer lows,” says Dennis Toddy, director of the USDA’s Midwest Climate Center. “The nights are not quite as calm and this has a different feel to it than if you had warmer daytime highs.” High night temperatures stress crops. Soybeans, for example, grow more quickly in warmer conditions, which lowers yields.
“We see warmer temperatures in February and March, and small grains like winter wheat will grow and enter the reproductive stages earlier. Then you get a cold spell in April or May and you can see frost damage because[the plant]has been stimulated earlier than it should be,” says Laura Lindsey, a soybean and small grain agronomist with the Ohio State University Extension Service.
But one of the most difficult changes to contend with is precipitation. With climate change, spring rains become more intense and summers suffer from prolonged dry spells.
Precipitation totals are rising in some parts of the country, but periods of precipitation are getting less and more frequent — instead of 15 days with two inches or two of rain, areas like the Midwest might see 10 days with four inches of rain.
“One of the biggest things we’re seeing in Illinois is increased precipitation and precipitation intensity,” says Illinois climatologist Trent Ford. “It’s about five inches wetter, which wouldn’t be much of a problem if it was patterned in the right way. A lot of that comes in increased intensity, with really big amounts of rain.”
To make matters worse, the soil can only absorb so much water and the excess erodes into nearby rivers and streams, taking expensive fertilizer with it.
“You’re left with a fraction of your fertilizer for the crop,” says Ford.
Experts point out that American farmers have an advantage over farmers in less developed countries because the United States has a Department of Agriculture that looks at growing conditions and land-grant universities in every state, with extension services that work directly with farmers. The USDA also provides financial assistance such as crop insurance that gives farmers financial guarantees.
Crops like corn and soybeans are also being bred to use less water or to grow to a shorter height, making them less vulnerable to the high winds that come with climate change.
“There are marker-supported genetic factors in maize that impart some water-use traits,” says Below. “These genes contain the help of markers that improve water use.”
However, experts like Ortiz-Bobea warn that the same farming techniques that are helping farmers adapt now could harm them in the future if drought spreads. For example, corn farmers plant rows of corn close together to squeeze the highest yield from limited acres.
In some ways, this strategy works. However, as the roots grow closer together, competition for scarce water increases, making the crop more susceptible to drying out, Ortiz-Poupia says.
How long can technology outpace the climate?
Researchers disagree about whether or not the increase in crop yields is sustainable with climate change hovering over the agricultural industry like the Sword of Damocles.
“It’s not climate change that’s destructive to Illinois agriculture,” says Ford. “Negative influences make things a little bit more complicated. They change things, and so it really requires a broad perspective of how we do farming in the Midwest and maybe we can do that more effectively in the face of these changes.”
However, the data shows that the warming of the planet has made a difference. In a study of last year’s crop production, researchers at Cornell University concluded that yields would be 21% higher over the past 50 years if the weather were consistent from year to year.
It is expected to be made worse by the heavy rains and prolonged drought irritating farmers.
“These very bad years are only going to become more frequent,” says Ortiz Bubia.
While some experts hope, no one can say for sure that advances in science and technology will continue to offset the increasing frequency of droughts and extreme rains.
If temperature and precipitation continue to change at the pace farmers have seen in recent years, a warming world may eventually outpace farmers’ ability to adapt to it.