Corn grows at a farm in Belvidere, Ill. Many farmers throughout the Midwest are dealing with the fallout of a drought that has harmed corn and soybean growth. Scott Olson/Getty Images
City leaders in Storm Lake, a rural community of 11,000 in Northwest Iowa, are asking residents not to wash their cars or water their yards and gardens during the hottest part of the day. The city also has cut back on watering public recreational spaces, such as ballfields and golf courses.
These are highly unusual steps in a state that is normally flush with water and even prone to flooding. But the rain in Iowa, along with the rest of the Corn Belt states of the Midwest, has been mysteriously absent this spring, plunging the region into drought.
“It’s something new that residents have never had to really deal with before,” said Keri Navratil, the city manager of Storm Lake.
As California and much of the Western United States ease out of drought conditions after a spectacularly wet winter, the Midwest has fallen victim to a dry, hot spell that could have devastating consequences for the world’s food supply.
“America’s Breadbasket” — the vast corn, soy and wheat fields that extend from the Great Plains to Ohio — hasn’t had enough rain to sustain crop growth, which fuels a major part of the region’s economy, including food, animal feed and ethanol production. The region last suffered a substantial drought in 2012, and before that in 1988.
Though experts have not tied this event to climate change directly, scientists have warned that climate change will lead to more summer droughts for the Midwest in the years to come.
An unusually dry spring and summerlike heat have stunted crops, forced water conservation measures and lowered levels in major waterways, which could prevent barges from transporting goods downstream.
Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson has declared a drought alert to assist counties hurt by these dry conditions. City leaders in Oak Forest, Illinois; Wentzville, Missouri; and Lincoln, Nebraska, have called on residents to limit their water usage.
The region’s drought conditions are both unusual and concerning, said Dennis Todey, the director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, which provides scientific analysis to the region’s agricultural and natural resource managers. This is the fourth year in a row of significant drought for much of the Midwest and Great Plains, he said.
“We’re reaching a point where we absolutely need to start getting rainfall over the main core of the Midwest,” he said. “We’re reaching a very concerning time here.”
This dry spell should not be happening, he added, especially with the return of El Niño, a cyclical weather event in which surface water temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean rise, causing wetter and warmer global weather. The Midwest is not getting that moisture.
Instead, a high-pressure system — which usually means sunny, calm weather — has parked itself above the region, preventing the precipitation needed for healthy crops and fully flowing waterways such as the Mississippi River. The frequent storms that are typical during the spring, fueled by moisture in the Gulf of Mexico, did not happen.
The majority of Iowa corn and soybean production is all rain-fed, and right now we just don’t have any.
– Mark Licht, Iowa State University associate professor and cropping systems specialist
Though “weird,” this weather pattern is not yet being connected to climate change, said Trent Ford, the Illinois state climatologist, who collects and analyzes the state’s climate data.
“It’s just extremely dry,” he said. “That’s why I said it’s weird. It is sort of this random weather pattern that’s established and has just really either persisted or I suppose evolved in a way to keep this part of the country very, very dry.”
Parts of Illinois have received only around 5% of normal rainfall this month, he added. Several places in the state should have 10 more inches of precipitation than they’ve gotten since April. Cities in the Chicago area are having their driest periods since 1936. Major rivers in the state, such as the Illinois and Kankakee, are at record lows for this time of year.
Nearly 60% of the Midwest, which includes Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, is under moderate drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which is run jointly by the federal government and the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Nearly 93% of the region is abnormally dry, with around 16% of it suffering severe drought.
In the Great Plains states of Kansas and Nebraska, the situation is far worse. A quarter of Nebraska and 38% of Kansas are under extreme drought. More than a tenth of Nebraska and 8% of Kansas are in exceptional drought — the monitor’s most severe stage. The Great Plains has had drought conditions for more than a year, though it has received some rain in recent weeks.
The region’s drought couldn’t come at a worse time from an agricultural point of view, said Brad Rippey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist and author of the U.S. Drought Monitor report. While the arid conditions are concerning, he said, there’s still time for the region to rebound.
“It’s still very young in the year, and if you look at drought intensity it’s not high yet,” he said. “Obviously, if it doesn’t rain over the next few weeks, that’s going to change. We’re really watching how this develops.”
These dry conditions have led to topsoil and subsoil moisture depletion, meaning less water in the ground to support planting and growing crops. Additionally, drier conditions have meant a vast browning of grasses and pasture lands, forcing farmers to buy more feed, instead of relying on grazing.
This is a critical time for farmers, as they approach the reproductive stage of crop development, when corn starts to silk and soybeans begin to blossom.
Mark Licht, an associate professor and cropping systems specialist at Iowa State University, recently walked the fields of a farm in Northeast Iowa that planted its soybeans after the early spring rains. Those soybeans didn’t have the moisture to germinate and emerge, he said, which has become a common problem throughout the state.
The state hasn’t had good rain since early May. What rain the state has gotten has been “spotty and patchy,” not providing enough precipitation to sustain the crops, he said. Soybean and corn plants are shorter than expected, with not enough canopy growth to protect the soil from weeds and sustained sunlight, which are harmful to crop development.
There is still some time for crops to rebound if the rain comes back. But if it doesn’t rain by the time the Iowa corn crop starts pollinating in a few weeks, its corn will have fewer kernels, which will raise prices for cattle owners who might have to look for alternative feed sources.
“We’re in a situation where we essentially need very timely rains to be able to get this crop through,” Licht said. “The majority of Iowa corn and soybean production is all rain-fed, and right now we just don’t have any.”
Recent rains in Kansas and Nebraska have helped the wheat crop in those states, said Justin Gilpin, CEO of Kansas Wheat, a wheat-grower advocacy group. But for other parts of the wheat-growing Great Plains states, it wasn’t enough.
“For a big portion of Kansas,” he added in an email to Stateline, “the drought improvement and rains are a little too late to have helped the wheat crop.”
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