Crumpled grain bins, flattened corn fields, flooded buildings and parched earth mark the haggard faces of worried farmers when extreme weather strikes.
Midwest climate data has shown these extremes aren’t rare occurrences.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks weather disasters causing more than $1 billion in damage nationally, adjusted for inflation. The state of Illinois alone has been affected by 81 NOAA-declared billion-dollar weather disasters in the last 30 years, says state climatologist Trent Ford. Of those, 64 were severe storms with hail, tornadoes and rain.
“Very few were droughts,” he says.
Drought doesn’t come as often in the Midwest and is usually more regional. However, some extreme droughts are the exception.
“2012 was about as bad as drought gets,” Ford says.
Going back a little further, the drought of 1988 challenged farmers with extreme heat in the core of the growing season. A double-digit number of days with temperatures above 100 degrees in east central Illinois hasn’t happened since. This drought caused an estimated (inflation-adjusted) $30 billion in agriculture losses, Ford says.
Getting through drought
In 1988, irrigation and availability of advanced hybrids was not widespread in the Midwest. Parts of the Midwest battled drought last year, including the Champaign, Illinois, area, but crops yields surprised many.
“I thought the rains came too late,” Ford says, but corn yields were better than expected.
Today’s hybrids can handle three to six-week dry spells pretty well, he says.
Going into the 2022 season, Gary Ellensohn was already wishing for rain. It was the beginning of the third dry year in a row in his part of northwest Iowa.
The fields near Le Mars in Plymouth County only received 4.5 inches of snow going into the 2022 season. This winter they got 40 inches of snow, providing a stronger moisture base for this growing season.
Last year from April 1 to Nov. 1, Ellensohn saw only 9.9 inches of rain. The top 5 feet of soil were the driest in 43 years, he notes.
“Beans suffered more than corn,” he said.
Yields, while significantly lower than normal, weren’t quite as bad as many expected. Corn averaged 176 bu./acre compared to the usual 205 to 200 bu./acre in that part of northwest Iowa. Soybeans averaged about 46 bu./acre.
“That’s all we could muster,” Ellensohn says of an area that is accustomed to harvesting between 60 and 70 bu./acre other years. “We ended up with respectable yields for what we went through. Twenty years ago those yields would have been half.”
Hybrids are getting better all the time at handling stress, he says.
“They still need a little drink now and then,” he says.
Other advancements continue to help farmers cope with weather challenges, Ford says. Widespread tiling helps farmers get into fields earlier in wetter springs. Earlier planting lead to fewer plants in the reproductive stages during the hottest, driest parts of the summer.
Research on short corn varieties may help lessen wind damage in the future, Ford said. And, expanded use of cover crops, no-till, and prairie strips are helping farmers address infiltration issues during intense rainfalls.
But these are no match for major disasters. Ford says 2019 is a one example of widespread flooding.
It followed five years of wet springs from 2015 to 2019. The ground was saturated, water table high and melting snowpack from the upper Midwest made its way into the Mississippi and its tributaries, including the Illinois, Rock and Kaskaskia systems.
For Danny Kuenzel, who farms in the Missouri River bottom in east central Missouri, high waters are something he deals with most years, but one flood in particular he will never forget.
“We have some high water events every year it seems,” he says. “That’s just part of farming along any river system.”
But the massive floods of 1993 and 1995 were far from the normal river bottom experience. Kuenzel says the great flood 30 years ago was the most damaging flood he’s seen.
“(The flood in) ’93 was by far the worst,” he says. “Our bottoms sustained several thousand acres of sand in fields.”
After a wet fall in 1992, heavy, widespread rains during the spring and summer of 1993 produced one of the biggest and longest floods in Missouri’s history. The Missouri River at Hermann, near where Kuenzel farms, was above flood stage for 77 days, according to the National Weather Service. Some towns along the Mississippi River in Missouri and Illinois saw flood-stage water levels for nearly 200 days.
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The floodwaters deposited sand across the fertile bottom ground fields, 18 inches in places or as deep as 8 to 10 feet in spots, Kuenzel says. Sandy areas are still visible around the river bottom.
“Some of that land was abandoned,” he says.
Some land became publicly owned and is used for wildlife preservation and other purposes today.
Kuenzel says it took time for the land to return to its former levels of productivity. He and other farmers have hired excavators to dig deep into sandy areas, find the good soil below, and bring it to the top. He says it can be expensive, but the yield increases gradually paid for it.
Kuenzel also says the Army Corps of Engineers and local boards work to maintain the levee system along the river and protect against future floods.
Overall, Kuenzel says the good years in the river bottom help make up for the flood years.
When it comes to wind, tornadoes often cause devastation in quarter-mile swaths of land, but straight-line winds cause more agricultural damage and more fatalities on a larger scale, Ford, the Illinois state climatologist says.
The 2020 derecho, a widespread, long-lived straight-line wind storm, devastated parts of Iowa and blew through northern Illinois spawning 15 tornadoes in the Chicagoland area, he says.
“That single storm caused complete devastation in some areas and billions of dollars of damage in Iowa alone,” Ford says.
Ryan Vavroch of Elberon, Iowa, was among the victims of that derecho. He lost nine grain bins and four machine sheds to the powerful wind storm on Aug. 10, 2020.
“Some had it much worse,” he says.
He was working in his machine shed when he heard of the coming storm. He and his family hunkered down in the storm shelter in their basement for more than half an hour of sustained 140 mph winds in Benton and Tama counties.
A crew putting up a grain bin on the farm at the time turned down the offer of going to the basement but ended up sheltering in the farm shed. Five of them huddled under the grain cart.
“Luckily that building stayed,” Vavroch says.
There was no power or cell phone service after the storm passed. They spent the next hours driving around checking on neighbors and assessing damages.
“The next day clean up started,” he says.
The early days after the storm were consumed with talking to insurance, making plans and picking up debris.
“It took many weeks and months of cleaning up debris,” says Vavroch, who is still finding fragments while farming on his east central Iowa land.
The grain bin being completed at the time of the storm was destroyed. Vavroch ended up building three new bins to help replace storage lost. Some of his landlords, in their 70s and 80s, were not interested in rebuilding bins, he says. Vavroch has a little less storage now, but the location is better.
“We updated some things. That’s the time to do it,” he says.
His corn was not harvestable in 2020, so he put a protective grate on his tractor when disking down the corn. He later used vertical tillage and a land roller to crush any stalks and let the corn start to decompose. The next spring he did tillage once or twice.
“Typically we strip-till, no-till or minimal till,” he says. “2021 yields didn’t really suffer. They were on par with a normal year. Overall our productivity has not gone backward.”
Still, the storm was “a giant wrench” thrown into the whole system for while.
“The biggest hurdle people had was deciding to rebuild or not,” he says.
It wasn’t a hard decision for Vavroch, who was only 34 years old at the time. But for others who were older, it was.
“It took a toll on people,” he said.
Farmers are stubborn, so most rebuilt, he says.
“There’s an enormous amount of pride in that,” he says.