Biologist On The Midwestern Drought: ‘It’s Like Farming In Hell’

by Max Frankel

As intense heat and drought conditions continue across much of the Midwest, they are starting to take a toll on crop yields. According to a university plant biologist, operating in such conditions is “like farming in hell.”

The U.S. corn crop, which is the largest in the world, is at a very vulnerable point in its development: the pollination phase. Although the harvest isn’t for two months, future yields will be determined in the next few weeks as crops pollinate. However, the unusually hot and dry conditions are complicating this phase.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on how drought conditions are impacting corn farmers:

“This is a very narrow window for corn, and there’s little room for error,” said Brad Rippey, an agricultural meteorologist for the United States Department of Agriculture. “Whatever happens in that window, it is what it is — that cob is made or broken.”

“Corn yields were falling five bushels a day during the past week” in the driest parts of the Midwest, said Fred Below, a plant biologist at the University of Illinois in Urbana. “You couldn’t choreograph worse weather conditions for pollination. It’s like farming in hell.”

Despite earlier predictions of a record yield, revised forecasts are anticipating crop losses not seen since the drought of 1988.

The Midwestern drought now encompasses portions of five corn producing states, including almost all of Ohio. “‘It all quickly went from ideal to tragic,’ said Don Duvall, a farmer in Illinois who, in what was a virtually rainless June, has watched two of his cornfields dry up and die as others remain in some uncertain in-between.”

The drought, which has kept rainfall levels in Columbus, Ohio at half of their normal levels, has been exacerbated by an intense heat wave that set over 4,000 high-temperature records in the last 30 days. In corn country, temperatures in places like Jefferson County, Mississippi, reached as high as 111.

Coupled with the heat and lack of rainfall is low soil moisture levels. Measurements taken in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky recorded soil moisture levels “in the 10th percentile among all other years since 1895.”

“The drought is much worse than last year and approaching the 1988 disaster,” said John Cory, the chief executive officer of Rochester, Indiana-based grain processor Prairie Mills Products LLC. “There are crops that won’t make it. The dairy and livestock industries are going to get hit very hard. People are just beginning to realize the depth of the problem.”

As this latest drought unfolds, researchers are looking at the impact of climate change on the intensity and likelihood of such an event. As Texas Climatologist Katherine Hayhoe recently told Climate Progress, extra energy in the atmosphere from greenhouse gases are creating new “background conditions”:

We often try to pigeonhole an event, such as a drought, storm, or heatwave into one category: either human or natural, but not both. What we have to realise is that our natural variability is now occurring on top of, and interacting with, background conditions that have already been altered by long-term climate change.

As our atmosphere becomes warmer, it can hold more water vapor. Atmospheric circulation patterns shift, bringing more rain to some places and less to others. For example, when a storm comes, in many cases there is more water available in the atmosphere and rainfall is heavier. When a drought comes, often temperatures are already higher than they would have been 50 years ago and so the effects of the drought are magnified by higher evaporation rates.

As Joe Romm pointed out on Sunday, the Earth has warmed only a bit more than 1 degree Fahrenheit since the catastrophic Dust Bowl — and the world is set to warm by between 9-11°F this century if we stay on a business-as-usual emissions path. That would make a lot more of America a true “hell” for farmers.

Max Frankel is a senior at Vassar College. Stephen Lacey contributed to this report.

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32 Responses to Biologist On The Midwestern Drought: ‘It’s Like Farming In Hell’

  1. scarecities says:

    While the USA is facing an agricultural crisis, we are perhaps losing sight of a even bigger looming tragedy.
    As deniers are constantly pointing out, temperatures across the great corning growing plains of the USA have fluctuated considerably; back in the 1930s, or 1880s, things might be said to have been just as bad.
    Except for one little problem: population.
    Since those earlier droughts, there are more people demanding to be fed, and like it or not, the USA has become the main, or in many cases their only source of food. 70 or 100 years ago world population was around 2 billion, but now it’s 7 billion and climate change is gradually removing their food sources as the cost of it rises out of reach.
    As USA food becomes scarcer and more expensive, there will be no option but to restrict exports. No government can allow free food to leave the country while their own people find they can’t afford to buy it. What starts out as altruism can end in violent revolution

  2. BillD says:

    I live in the country in Northern Indiana, an area of extreme drought. The corn is not shriveled today, because of cooler weather. However, stalks 3 or 4 feet tall are beginning to tassle. Even if pollination goes well, it seems very improbable that local corn will yield 30% of normal. Most farmers have federal crop insurance, so I guess that taxpayers will be picking up much of the loss.

  3. Jim says:

    Today corn prices went up the maximum amount allowed on the Chicago Exchange.

    Joe has said here a number of times that food insecurity is likely the problem that is going to bring climate change to the forefront.


  4. Leif says:

    As the fossil industry continues to pick up massive, largely un-taxed profits from the pollution of the commons exasperating the problem. All the while spending large amounts denying that they are a big part of the equation.

  5. M Tucker says:

    The level of public concern does not match the concern of these scientists or the concern expressed here by many. We will have higher food prices but folks will just grumble about the prices and grumble about the weather and will not connect them with anthropogenic global warming. I am waiting for President Obama, while on the stump, to be overwhelmed by calls to do something about global warming…hasn’t happened yet. We are a long way from taking any action.

  6. SecularAnimist says:

    M Tucker wrote: “We will have higher food prices but folks will just grumble about the prices …”

    When folks find that the price of bread at the supermarket has doubled, they will grumble.

    When folks find that there is no bread at the supermarket, their stomachs will grumble.

    Maybe then they’ll start to pay attention.

  7. wendy says:

    What a frightening and sad report.

  8. Joan Savage says:

    Persistent water unavailability is a threshold condition that would kick me harder and sooner than no bread.

  9. Mark says:

    I don’t think public concern or opinion is a big factor in the thinking or actions of the political and business leaders. If it doesn’t cost one of the big client’s any money, (equal marriage rights for instance) they will do something. If it costs a client, (oil industry, Wall street) nothing gets done.

    They don’t care at all about public opinion. And they still get elected, and reelected. so why should they?

  10. Mark Shapiro says:

    There is one source of resilience here:

    as corn and soy prices skyrocket, the price of beef also rises (after the downward blip as ranchers sell off herds that they can’t afford to feed).

    Ironically, the very waste and opulence of our food system actually gives us a little wiggle room.

    Remember that the whole “canary in the coal mine” aphorism is that it gives you just enough warning time to save your life. Come to think of it, the idea of leaving coal mines is extremely appealing . . .

  11. ANGRY BADGER says:

    To quote George Will from yesterday’s This Week: “We’re having some hot weather. Get over it.”
    The scary thing is that this arrogant cretin has absolutely no sympathy for the people his denialism is affecting now or will damage to in the future. It’s sick.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Precisely. Obama ‘The Great Pretender’ has the very same constituency as GW Bush-the ‘haves’ and the ‘have mores’. The rabble are there to be doped up on ‘Hopium’ every four years or so, then ignored, at best.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Now tell me-what personality type completely lacks human empathy and is totally indifferent to the suffering of others?

  14. John C. Wilson says:

    Higher prices will not materialize food that does not exist.If it didn’t grow you can’t buy it. It’s going to be very interesting to watch as we all learn that many things cannot be reduced to economics.

  15. Rob Jones says:

    It has to happen. From the old Roman empire – Give them bread and circuses – Or roughly interpreted if you can keep a population fed and entertained they will remain passive. But if they are hungry watch out. A hungry man with a hungry family will by necessity motivate himself into action. Much of that action will be wasted on a futile search for more food but some of it will be directed at the fleas who have allowed this tragedy to happen. Drive on by a thousand starving men in a gas guzzeler and see what happens then. Hide in your gated community until the guards are either starving or overwhelmed by starving mobs and you won’t feel very safe.
    The answer is plain and simple join now with those agitating for change and make as much noise as possible so that you can help protect your own or suffer the mob mentality that will occur as starving people look for scapegoats for their misery.

  16. squidboy6 says:

    George Will is the guy who made the Reagan Revolution seem palatable to many people. He lives inside an air-conditioned office and has no concern for anybody else.

    He should be shunned.

  17. Mark Shapiro says:

    My guess? Begins with socio-. Ends with -path.

    Guess also at the nature of the extractive industries. (See post about coal miners health problems above.)

  18. M Tucker says:

    Yeah, but you still don’t have public demonstrations or people insisting on action following President Obama around.

  19. Joan Savage says:

    As an American, I find it bizarre that a British monarch and her heir have strongly urged us all to address climate change, while US policy cringes tongue-tied due to the grip of the fossil fuel cartels.

    The dismissive tone of Will’s “Get over it,” is so like the apocryphal, “Let them eat cake.”

  20. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I know you are all a bit shell shocked by the heat, drought and fires but food crops are destroyed by all sorts of weather disasters. We have recently seen them wiped out by torrential rains, floods, cyclones, high humidity and hail. Any kind of extreme can wipe out a crop if it comes at exactly the wrong point in the growing and harvesting seasons. As these things become ever more unpredictable, so the damage levels will rise. An El Nino may cool things down for you but it will bring its own risks, ME

  21. Just a couple of months ago I remember reading that some farmers were putting part of their corn crop in early because of the mild winter. Global warming deniers took this as a sign of the benefits of climate change. Only problem is, as droughts and super-hot summers follow those mild winters, those crops are goners.

  22. Doug Blevins says:

    I’m reminded of Dobzhansky’s quote, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975)

    It seems to me that we could apply this quote to what we have been witnessing with climate change. “Nothing in Climate Makes Sense Except in the Light of Anthropogenic Climate Change.”

  23. Spike says:

    I have never understood why the rich continue to bay for more and more money, buying up politics and bribing lawmakers to produce their tax cuts. For one many of them don’t need more money, for two the book The Spirit Level shows clearly that a highly unequal society is bad for all – even the rich. there is some deep psychology and psychopathology involved here.

  24. Spike says:

    Yes in the UK some crops are being lost due to the sodden fields and fungal diseases.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Like Peak Oil, Peak Food does not mean that we will run out of food. It just means that there will be a shortfall, and prices will rise, hitting the poor in the poorest countries first. More or less as the Right intends. Moreover, that shortfall will allow the vampire speculators of the bankster Mafias to drive prices up and down, on the rigged commodities markets, to extract unearned profit from human hunger, misery, starvation and death.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    How old is Will? He must think that he’ll be safely dead when the trials for ecocidal crimes against humanity, including propaganda offences, commence. I suspect that he might be surprised.

  27. mary says:

    People with brains don’t eat GMO corn anyway. It goes to feed your CAFO chickens and cows and pigs that goes into your fastfood. It goes to make HFCS that goes in every processed food in America. It goes into Ethanol to fuel our gas guzzling SUVs. If you source your food locally and organically or better yet, grow your own and source only whole foods not processed, you’ll be fine. There are fatcats on wallstreet getting rich on manipulating the commodities market- so just switch your dollars away from things that greedy wall street people are speculating on! Climate Change is real and these guys are going to have to switch to sustainable farming anyway because these GMO intensive farming operations can’t survive much longer- they are not sustainable & extremely resource inefficient. So just stay away from it. No Corn, Soy, Canola in my household.

  28. John J says:

    Monsanto has come out with GM sweet corn and it is going to hit the shelves soon. There is no getting away from GM unless you are very careful about the seeds you buy. There are Frankenseeds everywhere. I do agree that growing your own is the best way to insure that you are eating healthy, non-GM and industrial chemical free. But you even have to watch out for the fungicides they put on the seeds before they’re packaged. The food industry is gross.

  29. wili says:

    Them belly full, but we hungry;
    A hungry mob is a angry mob.
    A rain is fall, but the dirt it tough;
    A pot is cook, but the food no ‘nough…

    Cost of livin’ gets so high,
    Rich and poor they start to cry:
    Now the weak must get strong;
    They say, “Oh, what a tribulation!”

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    You need to study pleonexia, a word that ought to be revived. Aristotle and the early Christian philosophers understood insatiable greed and the drive to dispossess others.

  31. Julie K. says:

    If i got it right, greenhouse gases are responsible for so high temperatures and thereby for drought. In other words people are responsible for all of it. When do we realize our lifestyle is wrong and that simple buying and consuming of everything does not make any good.