(top-right) The drought has dragged on for a long time. Last year, orchard farmers in California’s Central Valley destroyed trees that were dying due to lack of water. This year, many more farmers did the same.
Extreme weather and high fuel prices have been daunting obstacles for American food producers, but the good news is wheat and soy yields are up compared with last year.
Lack of summer rain forced Nebraska farmer Kevin Fulton to go underground to find water for his crops. Not a perfect solution: the Ogallala Aquifer, where Fulton tapped in, has pumping restrictions in some areas, just not where Fulton is located. That’s because the aquifer is running dry.
As drought extends its deadly fingers from California to the eastern side of the Mississippi River — a vast stretch of the continent that produces most of America’s food, including three-quarters of its beef cattle and 70% of its vegetables, fruits and nuts — farmers and ranchers are facing a double whammy. They have to go farther to find water and higher fuel costs are forcing them to pay more to pump whatever isn’t coming from the sky. That predicament is still better than what’s happened to the land that’s not irrigated, Fulton says.
“These kinds of things sometimes push farmers over the edge.”
“The pastures are burning up,” Fulton, a 28-year veteran of farming the land he inherited, told Forbes. “Some aren’t going to produce anything and the yields have been drastically reduced. This wears on you mentally. You’re working hard to keep up with the irrigation. It’s depressing. These kinds of things sometimes push farmers over the edge.”
Only heroic efforts by farmers and ranchers have kept supermarket shelves supplied in the parched U.S. Even so, drought is expensive for consumers and limits their choices. Inflation caused by higher production costs will persist as long as hot, dry weather dominates vast swathes of the country. Many of the folks who make their living from agriculture realize that conditions in summer, the most dangerous season, will likely persist into the future.
“The hazards in recent years have been relentless,” Kristy Dahl, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ principal climate expert, told Forbes. “We need to be better prepared for ‘danger season,’ otherwise we’ll increasingly be caught off-guard every year. Climate change is getting worse.”
Despite the drought — in some places, the driest conditions going back more than 1,000 years — American producers have managed to bring in a projected harvest that’s nowhere near as bad as it could be. Soybean production will actually increase 2% from 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and wheat is up 8% over last year as global demand soared in the wake of Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine, a major wheat-producing country.
The concern is the corn harvest, which the USDA predicts will be down 5% from 2021, with less of the supply classified as good or excellent compared with last year. Still, the USDA forecasts record-high corn yields in California, Iowa, Washington and Wisconsin.
American food producers polled by the American Farm Bureau Federation last year complained of dangerously dry conditions. The farmers and ranchers surveyed in August 2022 say circumstances are pretty much the same or worse.
Nearly three-quarters of farmers saw a reduction in harvest yields due to drought, while 37% said they were tilling over fields that won’t produce anything because of a lack of water, up from 24% last year. One-third of orchard farmers nationwide, and 50% in California, said they were ripping up trees, an increase from 17% in 2021. In one case, the Farm Bureau said, a California producer dropped all the fruit on five acres of young Cabernet grapes to help the vines survive without water. That ensured that the farmer would have no revenue from those vines.
Similar measures plague the livestock industry, according to the Farm Bureau. Two-thirds of ranchers reported selling off animals or birds, with average herd sizes expected to be down 36%. The biggest herd declines are in Texas (down 50%), New Mexico (43%) and Oregon (41%), a good example of the wide geographic distribution of the distress.
“You can’t feed yourself out of a drought.”
Fulton says 2022 was the worst year of drought in the past decade, and the second-worst in his three decades of farming, after 2012. Some of Fulton’s neighbors are now reducing the sizes of their herds and taking the livestock to the auction barn. Fulton says he’s considering doing the same. Drought kills off the grass that cattle need to graze on, so farmers have to buy expensive hay to feed them instead.
“You can’t feed yourself out of a drought. It doesn’t work from a profit standpoint,” Fulton says. “We’re going to run out of grass.”
In mid-August, rains finally hit farms in dried-out Southwestern states, including Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Then the rains arrived on the Great Plains.
Farmers like Fulton welcomed the brief break. But it was too little, too late.
On Fulton’s farm, the effects of a changing climate are pervasive. There are more grasshoppers, which love dry weather and eat the crops. Fulton’s bees have also been less active. Honey production is half of what it normally is, he said. There’s also the looming threat of heat-driven poison: If some plants don’t get enough water, they can produce high levels of nitrates, which makes them toxic for the livestock that eat them.
According to the USDA’s August production report, the rains in mid-August helped to replenish topsoil moisture and “revived drought-ravaged rangeland and pastures. However, hot, dry weather persisted.” From the Pacific Coast to the northern Plains, temperatures averaged at least 5°F above normal. Readings even averaged 10°F above normal in some locations across the interior Northwest and Northern California.
Drought-resistant seeds and drip-irrigation to conserve water are promising solutions, if they can be put to use at scale. A lot of money has gone towards funding startups and research, but there haven’t been many mainstream successes.
This year’s industrially grown commodity crops so far still seem strong overall. But the cracks driven by climate change are starting to show.
“In my 50 years of farming it never went from being so wet to so dry – it’s the fastest I’ve seen.”
Darvin Bentlage, a 66-year-old, fourth-generation cattle and grain farmer located north of Joplin, Missouri, says the extreme weather that he and his neighbors face has taken them on a roller-coaster ride. Earlier this year, it rained so much that he had to delay planting. Then the drought came.
“That was a rough start,” Bentlage told Forbes. “In my 50 years of farming it never went from being so wet to so dry – it’s the fastest I’ve seen.” He added: “Pray for rain.”
Despite decreasing access to water and extreme weather projections on the horizon, Fulton says he’s optimistic for the future.
“Like most farmers, when we have a bad year, we say it will be better next year. We live to farm another year,” he says. “Sometimes it seems like it can’t get any worse.”