Wild weather has the farmers watching the North American skies


The world is counting on North American farmers for big harvests of everything from corn to canola this year. Due to strange weather conditions, growers will likely be short.

The United States and Canada see unusual climate variability, with some crops dying from heat and drought while others experience flooding. Meanwhile, demand is increasing as economies recover from the coronavirus pandemic, so much so that every grain counts.

The culprit is an abnormal high pressure system that is likely to stay in place for a key period of the growing season, when plants are flowering and developing. It is responsible for the hottest temperatures on record in the US Pacific Northwest while forming a trough in the central US that brings rain showers. The hot, arid conditions moved eastward, spreading across agricultural areas of the American plains and Canadian prairies, adversely affecting everything from spring wheat used in pizza to canola used for cooking oil.

With production from major exporters like Brazil already declining, wild weather is contributing to more volatility in crop markets, with canola prices hitting record highs and spring wheat at multi-year highs.

“Rain, hail, drought, we’ve had it all,” said April Hemmes, a fourth-generation farmer in north-central Iowa.

In the past, drought and rainfall were normally milder and more widespread. But the global climate is changing and becoming more and more extreme, resulting in pockets of lushness and intense drought. Harvest conditions in parts of the Midwest and Mid-South regions are near ideal.

“Because there is more rainfall, it is less frequent, spatially,” said John Corbett, founder and CEO of agricultural intelligence company aWhere.

The biggest question on the map of North American farms is Iowa, the largest producer of corn in the United States and the second largest producer of soybeans. The current line dividing the drought danger zone from more “normal” weather crosses the state, said Dan Hicks, a meteorologist at Freese-Notis Weather in Des Moines, Iowa.

As millions of acres of cropland in western Iowa suffer from dry conditions, other farmers who received rain saw a downpour, which put plants at risk during the heaviest rising crop prices for nearly a decade.

Hemmes’ fields had corn so dry last month that the leaves rolled up to conserve moisture.

Meanwhile, in the southeastern state near Ottumwa, Pat Swanson said the rain in late June had started as a blessing. Then a hailstorm followed by 6.5 inches of rain swept the gravel road to her 2,000-acre soybean and corn farm that she runs with her husband, Don.

Parts of these fields “might not produce anything,” Swanson said.

Some farming towns in southern Minnesota, a major producer of wheat, corn and soybeans, have experienced the least rain since 2012 and the warmest temperatures in more than a decade. In neighboring North Dakota, conditions for the spring wheat crop are the worst since 1988, according to government data.

North Dakota farmer Paul Anderson, who in May gave up his struggling spring wheat in favor of corn, sowed the corn seeds very deep so that the roots could reach the moisture in the subsoil .

“The corn is hanging in there, but we took extra care to get it in,” Anderson said.

Farmers on either side of the Canada-US border are increasing plantings, driven by high prices and dwindling stocks, but yields are suffering. The Canadian government said last week that farmers have planted the most canola in three years.

Environment Canada has issued heat warnings over much of the western half of the country, even as far north as the Arctic Circle.

The country, best known for its freezing winters, has had a scorching hot week as the heat wave moves east through key agricultural provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, the main canola producers. Temperatures are expected to peak at around 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

The fields start to bloom, which means that a bloom explosion can occur – when the canola blossoms fall without turning into oilseeds, ”said Keith Ferley, contract specialist at commodity term for RBC Dominion Securities Inc. in Winnipeg.

Temperatures of just 91 degrees Fahrenheit could hurt returns, which is “almost a done deal,” said Chuck Penner, analyst at LeftField Commodity Research in Winnipeg.

Swanson, who handled the flooding, farms in the only part of Iowa that is not currently affected by drought or abnormal drought. She’s still nervous with arid conditions covering most of the state.

“You have to be optimistic or you would never farm,” she said.

Information for this article was provided by Dominic Carey and Brian K. Sullivan of Bloomberg News.


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