Midwestern Farmers Face Drought And Dust

9:28 minutes

clouds of dust roll over a dry field
More than 80% of the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma region is experiencing abnormally dry conditions. Recent rains have helped ease back the dryness, but aren’t enough to eliminate the drought conditions farmers and ranchers are facing this season. Credit: Will Bauer/Nebraska Public Media

state of science iconThis article is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Elizabeth Rembert of Harvest Public Media, was originally published on KCUR.

Even with a few recent rains, much of the Great Plains are in a drought. Wildfires have swept across the grasslands and farmers are worried about how they’ll make it through the growing season.

Randy Uhrmacher is in his tractor, planting corn and soybeans in central Nebraska. But it’s hard to see his work. The soil is so dry that clouds of dust hang in the air as he drives through his fields.

“Not sure how I’m supposed to see what I’m doing tonight,” Uhrmacher said on a recent night of planting.

Even turning on the windshield wipers didn’t help him see through the dust storm. If he didn’t use soil conservation practices like reduced tillage and cover crops, he said his fields could look like something out of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

It’s the driest spring Uhrmacher can remember in his 38 years of farming.

Drought is a challenge many farmers and ranchers are facing in the middle of the country.

More than 80% of the Nebraska-Kansas-Oklahoma region is abnormally dry, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center’s most recent data. And more than half of the area is severely dry.

Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the center, said the harsh conditions follow an extremely dry winter in much of the Plains. A winter without much precipitation wasn’t surprising. The colder La Nina weather pattern is playing out in the Pacific Ocean this year, which often brings below-average precipitation levels to the United States.

But Fuchs said the dryness has exceeded expectations.

“We’re currently seeing a tremendous amount of drought,” he said. “And it’s getting to be more intense from South Dakota, down into Nebraska, Kansas and all the way into Texas.”

Recent rainfall in the region has toned down some of the alarm bells, but Fuchs said the showers still haven’t eliminated the drought conditions that have been building since October.

“It’s been a welcome relief to farmers and has paid back some of the precipitation deficits in the region,” he said. “It will help ease dryness in some areas, but long term projections are showing that the drought is going to continue having a foothold through the summer.”

Many farmers said they’ve been worried their crops won’t have enough moisture to break above the ground.

That concern pushed Uhrmacher to do something he’d never done before: turn on his irrigation pivots to pump water through the soil before planting. He said he felt it was his only option to get moisture into the ground. He also increased his crop insurance policy to get more coverage in case crops on his non-irrigated land wilt.

“It just depends on Mother Nature from here,” Uhrmacher said. “We’re doing the best we can, but it can only be a good year if it starts raining and we get normal rains or above-normal rains for the rest of the year.”

Strong winds are also working against farmers this year. Oklahoma saw its windiest April since at least 1994. Wind speeds have also been above average in Nebraska and Kansas.

a wildfire burns in a dry plain
Dry conditions and high winds contributed to the 702 wildfire, which burned more than 43,582 acres across southwest Nebraska in late April, according to state estimates. It scorched grassland and hay that ranchers rely on to feed their cattle. Credit: Nebraska State Patrol

The high winds and a dry prairie have been the perfect kindling for wildfires. Steve Rice is an alfalfa farmer but has been busy as a volunteer firefighter in southwestern Nebraska. He remembers driving up to a house in late April on a road sandwiched between hundreds of burning hay bales.

“There’s a wall of fire on each side,” he said. “And we sat there in the ash, in the smoke, in the wind and everything for three hours and tried to protect the house. We did it, we saved it, but he lost all of his hay bales and feed.”

Wildfires have burned up hay and thousands of acres of grassland that ranchers rely on to feed their cattle. In response, Rice has been organizing hay donations and transporting the bales to ranchers who need help.

a man in a cap and sweater standing in front of bales of hay.
Steve Rice is an alfalfa farmer and ships his product to 27 states. He’s helped ranchers feed their livestock before. When wildfires hit Paradise, Kansas he took about eight semi-truck loads of hay donations to the affected cattlemen. “And now I’m afraid our neighbors need some help,” he said. “So we’re trying to do it here at home.” Credit: Will Bauer/Nebraska Public Media

“They lost their pasture ground, they lost their bales in the yards and in the ranches … all of it is gone, it’s hard to understand that,” he said. “Those farmers, they lost their entire inventory of feed. And it doesn’t need to just be replenished for a week, it needs to be replenished for months.”

The drought means there’s not much hay and grassland, even for areas that haven’t seen wildfires. Some ranchers are considering selling off cattle because they’re worried about feeding them.

It’s reminding some farmers and ranchers of the last big drought in 2012, when farmers recorded more than $35 billion in crop losses. But Fuchs said there are some key differences between this year’s conditions and 2012.

The 2012 drought started developing from the east and spread west, unlike now, where states east of the Missouri River have generally received good precipitation. If anything, farmers in parts of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri are complaining that their soil has been too drenched for them to start planting.

And there were also almost no signals of drought in spring 2012, so it took farmers by surprise when dryness started developing in the summer.

“The first areas in the region showing drought in 2012 were Illinois, Indiana and then it kind of just exploded from there in late June, early July,” Fuchs said. “That’s not what we’re seeing this year. Temperatures have also been cooler than in 2012, which has been a saving grace.”

Droughts are a part of the natural weather cycle in the Plains, Fuchs said. So it’s not unexpected that the region would go through another dry spell a decade after its last big drought.

Yet Kansas meteorologist Chip Redmond said climate change could play a part in pushing dryness into drought. He said weather events are getting more extreme, with heavy rain flanked by long dry periods. Higher temperatures could be another contributing factor.

“It’s a slow, gradual impact,” Redmond said. “When we look at things like above-normal overnight temperatures—which has been a really common theme of climate change—we can develop drought more readily, potentially.”

The Drought Center’s research shows dry conditions persisting through the end of July. That has farmers and ranchers like Uhrmacher and Rice praying the recent rains continue.

“We’re in dire straits with the drought conditions we have right now,” Rice said. “ If Mother Nature could turn the spigot on then that could change, but right now we don’t even know if we’re going to raise a crop. We need water, we need rain.”

Nebraska Public Media’s Will Bauer contributed reporting to this story, and the Midwest Newsroom’s Daniel Wheaton analyzed data. 

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

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Segment Guests

Elizabeth Rembert

Elizabeth Rembert is an agriculture and rural communities reporter at Nebraska Public Media for Harvest Public Media.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, and now it’s time to check in on the State of Science.

SPEAKER 1: This is KERA News–


SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio–

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. In recent years, there’s been a lot of attention paid to ever drier conditions in the Western US– less snow, less rain, increased chance of wildfire. But a changing climate isn’t only affecting the West Coast. The Great Plains are seeing increasing dryness also. And with that, comes threats to agriculture– loss of vital topsoil and increased risks of fires. Elizabeth Rembert is a reporter for Nebraska Public Media and Harvest Public Media, based in Lincoln. Welcome to Science Friday, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Hi, Ira. It’s so great to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you. I know that you’ve been reporting on that dryness, and it’s part of the Great Plains weather cycle, but this year, it’s even worse. Just how bad is it?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yes, it is a bad year. So dryness is a part of life in the Great Plains. Like you said, it’s a part of the natural cycle. Climatologists say that we’re always operating on a spectrum where extreme wetness is at one end, and extreme dryness is at the other. And the amount of snow or rain that you get throughout a year and the temperatures factor in to put you somewhere on that spectrum. But this year, starting in about October, the region didn’t get enough snow or rain to get that good moisture into the soil.

IRA FLATOW: So would you call it a drought at this point?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yes, Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center said that those dry conditions in the winter, they weren’t a surprise. But then they continued building to establish a deep draught that we’re seeing now.

BRIAN FUCHS: We had a tremendously dry winter through much of the plains. And that was not unexpected, but we really didn’t understand, last fall, what the extent of that dryness was going to be.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Brian Fuchs said that it’s the worst drought year since 2012. And in 2012, the Great Plains region saw more than $35 billion in losses because of that drought.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s 10 years ago. And that dryness has caused wildfires, right?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yes, the dryness of the soil hasn’t allowed the new green moist growth to get out of the ground. And so, there’s a lot of dry dead grass out there. And many states in the Great Plains are also seeing extremely high intense winds. Oklahoma clocked its windiest April since 1994. And those are the perfect conditions for wildfires– that dryness, the windiness. And in Nebraska, tens of thousands of acres have burned, and two fire chiefs have actually lost their lives fighting those blazes.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s terrible. Now, I know, from looking at farms, sometimes they have bales of hay out there, right, on the fields. Do they catch fire also?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yes, a colleague of mine spoke to one volunteer firefighter, and he remembered a scene going up to help fight a fire that was coming to a house. And he drove up a road. And on both sides of the road, there were bales of hay. And every single one of those hay bales was on fire. So farmers and ranchers are losing those hay bales, but then they’re also losing just the grassland. And that’s where they put their cattle out to eat the grass. That’s where they get their food.

And if they don’t have that grassland, then they don’t have enough food for their cattle. And that leads ranchers to sell off cattle before they planned, probably for a lower price. When my colleague spoke to that same farmer, he talked about how he’s been fighting the blazes, but then also helping farmers and ranchers with the aftermath by organizing hay donations for farmers who need help.

SPEAKER 5: So they lost their pasture ground. They lost their bales that were in the yards and in the ranches. All of it’s gone. It’s hard to understand that. But for those farmers, they lost their entire inventory of feed.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, that’s tough to hear. And I imagine a lot of those farmers have been in this business for years, right? They’ve never seen anything like this, at least, for a decade.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yeah, I spoke to one farmer who said that this was the driest spring that he’s ever seen in his nearly 40 years of farming. And that even beats 2012. When he was putting seeds in the ground a few weeks back, he said that this was the least optimistic that he’d ever felt, putting seeds into the ground.

IRA FLATOW: You reported that dryness isn’t new for the plains. We talked about that. And farmers have learned some tricks to deal with it. Tell us what they are.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yeah, drought resistant crops have gained a lot of traction in the region, especially since the 2012 drought when farmers were hit with that extreme dryness. Drought resistant crops are seeds that have been bred to thrive, even when the rains don’t come. Other conservation practices can also be helpful to protect soil from erosion by those extremely high intense winds. Farmers will reduce the amount that they till, which means that they’re not plowing over the soil as much.

And then, sometimes, they’ll also plant crops between the growing seasons. And that helps keep the soil down as well. One farmer that I spoke to said that if he wasn’t doing those conservation practices, he thought that if you put a black and white filter on a picture of his farm, it would look like something out of the 1930s Dust Bowl.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, Grapes of Wrath back again. Is it getting to that point?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: There have been some recent rains in this region, which have been helpful. But remember what Brian Fuchs said, that climatologist, that these conditions have been building since October. So even a few recent rains isn’t enough to completely satisfy that deep rain deficit that the region is facing.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. As you say, farmers saying this is the worst that they can remember. Are they doing anything differently this time compared to previous years?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: One farmer in Nebraska said that this season, he did something that he has never done before, which is, he turned on his irrigation system, even before he put seeds into the ground, before he went through the planting process. Other farmers might also be increasing their crop insurance, which guarantees some payment if the crops don’t come up.

IRA FLATOW: Is this true of the whole state? I mean, is the whole state under these kinds of conditions?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Most of the state, yes. It gets better the further east that you go. And it’s actually– it’s kind of an interesting situation right now because once you cross the Missouri River into Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, those farmers are actually complaining that they’re getting too much moisture.

IRA FLATOW: No, really?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Their fields are too– yeah, they’re too soaked. And they haven’t been able to get out into the fields planting. So it’s, like I said, the two extremes. Across the Missouri River, you’re at one end. You’re at a completely different on the western side of the state.

IRA FLATOW: This climate change is a crazy thing. These farmers and ranchers’ lives and their homes and their incomes are all dependent, right, on the weather. I imagine that’s incredibly stressful to them, as you’re talking to them. How are they holding up?

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yeah, a lot of people say that drought is probably the most stressful thing that a farmer or rancher can go through. I mean, these are people who stay in this profession because they love the process of being in the soil, putting a plant in, and then maybe it’s a corn seed. They’re putting a corn seed in and then watching it grow into the beautiful green stalk and then that picture-perfect yellow cob that we all picture.

So it can be really challenging if you do that investment, and then you go out into your fields, and you see patches where the plant hasn’t even come up, or you see patches of those dry dead plants. But farmers and ranchers are also practical, and they say that their whole job is about these variables and adapting to the variables. So I think that they’re feeling a little bit discouraged, but they are still praying for rain and ready to make changes if they need to.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because I would imagine they can expect more of the same in the future. And they have to get used to that and adapt.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Yeah, scientists say that some factors of climate change, like higher temperatures, which can evaporate moisture more quickly, or we’re seeing long spells of dryness offset by less frequent but more intense rainfalls, those types of factors can push dryness into drought. And so, it is a gradual change. And I think farmers are always watching their fields and the weather conditions, and they’re ready to adapt. Maybe they’re expecting to use more drought resistant crops or conservation practices in the future to adapt to those changing conditions.

IRA FLATOW: All right, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.

ELIZABETH REMBERT: Thank you so much for the time.

IRA FLATOW: Elizabeth Rembert is a reporter for Nebraska Public Media and Harvest Public Media based in Lincoln. And you can read her reporting on this topic on our website, sciencefriday.com/dryplains.

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