The Salt
2:20 pm
Tue August 12, 2014

Iowa's Corn Farmers Learn To Adapt To Weather Extremes

Originally published on Thu August 14, 2014 8:32 am

Climate change is creating all kinds of challenges and opportunities for business. One of the sectors that feels the effects most immediately is agriculture. Already, weather patterns are making it more challenging to raise corn — even in Iowa — in the middle of the Corn Belt.

Seth Watkins raises corn and cattle in southern Iowa, and he recalls the memorable weather from 2012.

"We started out with an extreme drought and then that was topped off by the worst hail storm we've had — ever. I would say that we lost 40 percent of our crop," he says.

Two studies released this summer have warned that, in coming decades, climate change will threaten corn production on the western plains of Kansas and Nebraska. It will also dramatically cut yields in Corn Belt states like Iowa.

And it's a big deal because corn is the nation's largest crop.

Over $1 trillion of business revenue is produced on the back of corn production — things like meat, ethanol and sweeteners for soft drinks.

In a test field east of Des Moines, Iowa, Watkins and Iowa State University agronomist Matt Liebman are looking for a way to help farmers adapt to soil erosion caused by torrential rain events that are becoming more common.

Liebman has helped develop a new technique for curbing erosion by planting strips of native prairie plants at strategic locations within cornfields. The deep-rooted, resilient prairie plants can help hold the soil in place as climate change produces more violent storms with heavy rains.

"We slow down the water, and allow more of it to seep into the ground, rather than run off," Liebman says. "We want to retain the nutrients that might be washed out into the stream and keep them on the crop fields."

Higher temperatures and dwindling aquifers used for irrigation are also threatening corn growers on the Western Plains. And Liebman says farmers in Iowa have faced multiple threats in past years.

"We can wind up with conditions like we had last year, where we started out incredibly wet and there were several hundred-thousand acres of North Central Iowa and Southern Minnesota that never got planted, followed by seven or eight weeks of almost-total drought," Liebman says.

Watkins says getting a crop in is getting dicey.

"They always used to say you had 12 days to get a crop in in the spring, and I haven't seen that for several years, unfortunately," he says.

About 10 miles from Liebman's test fields, Gene Snetselaar runs a small implement dealership — no tractors, just things like planters and wagons.

He says farmers are buying new equipment to cope with the weather changes, including adding planters so they can get crops in faster during a wet spring, and new grain wagons with tracks like a military tank, instead of wheels.

Growing conditions have been favorable across the Corn Belt this year and a bumper corn crop is expected. But scientists warn action needs to be taken to cut carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.

If that doesn't happen, the changes in weather patterns are likely to overwhelm the farmers' attempts to adapt.

On Thursday, NPR's John Ydstie reports from North Dakota, where weather patterns are benefiting some farmers.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Climate change is creating both challenges and opportunities for business, and agriculture is one of the sectors that feels the effects most immediately. Tomorrow, we're going to hear about some opportunities for farmers, but today, some challenges. NPR's John Ydstie has this story about how new weather patterns are making it harder to raise corn in the middle of the Corn Belt in Iowa.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Farmers have always had to manage their business with one eye on the weather, for good reason. It can make or break their bottom line. Just ask Seth Watkins, who raises corn and cattle in southern Iowa, about the weather two years ago in 2012.

SETH WATKINS: Well, we started out with an extreme ground and then that was topped off by the worst hailstorm we've had ever. That's how we lost 40 percent of our crop.

YDSTIE: Two studies released this summer have warned that in coming decades, climate change will threaten corn production where it's grown on the western plains of Kansas and Nebraska, but also dramatically cut yields in Corn Belt states, like Iowa.

It's a big deal because corn is the nation's largest crop. Over a trillion dollars of business revenue is produced on the back of corn production each year - think meat, ethanol and sweeteners for soft drinks.

WATKINS: Are just to mark this ephemeral gully? Or - what was the purpose of this stake?

MATT LEIBMAN: I think it's probably marking the gully.

WATKINS: Yeah.

YDSTIE: Today, Seth Watkins is walking through a test field east of Demoines with Iowa State University agronomist Matt Leibman. They're looking for a way to adapt to the challenge Iowa farmers have faced in recent years from soil erosion caused by torrential rain events that are becoming more common. Leibman has the developed a new technique for curbing erosion by planting strips of native prairie plants at strategic locations within cornfields.

LEIBMAN: We had a mixture of prairie species. This is a goldenrod. We have cup plant over there, which is a sort of a signature prairie plant. It's a silphium species. There's Indian grass and big bluestem in here.

YDSTIE: The deep-rooted, resilient prairie plants can help hold the soil in place as climate change produces more violent storms with heavy rains.

LEIBMAN: We slow down the water and allow more of it to seep into the ground, rather than run off. We want to retain the nutrients that might be washed out into the stream and keep them on the crop fields.

YDSTIE: Erosion is just one challenge for corn producers. Higher temperatures and dwindling aquifers used for irrigation are threatening corn growers on the western plains. And Leibman says, farmers in Iowa have faced multiple threats in the past years.

LEIBMAN: We can wind up with conditions like we had last year, where we started out incredibly wet and there were several hundred thousand acres of north central Iowa and southern Minnesota that never got planted, followed by seven or eight weeks of almost total drought.

YDSTIE: Seven Watkins says, there's no question. Just getting a crop planted is challenging.

WATKINS: They always used say, you have 12 days get a crop in in the spring, and I haven't seen them for several years, unfortunately.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nice day out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Beautiful day.

YDSTIE: About ten miles from Leibman's test fields, along a busy highway, Gene Snetselaar runs a small implement dealership - no tractors, just things like planters and wagons. He says, farmers are buying new equipment to cope with the weather changes, including more planters so they can get their crops in faster in a wet spring and new grain wagons with tracks like a military tank, instead of wheels.

GENE SNETSELAAR: I had a customer about two years ago - bought his first track wagon. And then he commented that next spring - I see him, and he says, those were wise words last fall. If I didn't have that track wagon, I don't know how we'd ever gotten the crop all out because a cart with tires on it - we would've probably been stuck with it all the time.

YDSTIE: Growing conditions across the Corn Belt have been favorable this year, and a bumper corn crop is expected. But scientists warn action needs to be taken to cut the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. If that doesn't happen, the changes in weather patterns are likely to overwhelm the farmers' attempts to adapt. John Ydstie, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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