Farmers’ Story Same For Weather, Economics: Volatile


By Don Davis

Farmers face unpredictability, whether the topic is the weather or economics.

In the weather, farmers are going to be forced to deal with ever-increasing temperatures and humidity, a well-known climatologist told them during Tuesday’s Minnesota Agri-Growth Council annual meeting. As for ag economics, farmers face an uncertain five years, an ag economist said.

“The pace of change is increasing very rapidly,” University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley told the 500 ag leaders attending the meeting, summing up the story for weather and economics.

Seeley’s talk may have produced the most surprising revelations of the day, piecing together weather information the farm-oriented audience knew, but perhaps never put together.

Seeley, known around Minnesota for weekly appearances on Minnesota Public Radio’s Morning Edition, said the state now deals with “tropical-like” humidity and during the summer, the heat index can reach levels found in the Persian Gulf.

For instance, Seeley said, Moorhead had the highest heat index, 134 degrees, in the country one day in 2011. Minnesota also has experienced the country’s coldest Groundhog Day.

Extreme contrasts also are more common, as is more severe weather.

Seeley said one extreme came along the St. Louis River in Carlton County in 2010. During northeast Minnesota’s flooding that year, the river ran at a record-high 45,000 cubic feet per second, but five months later, was at the lowest flow in more than 105 years, 458 cubic feet a second.

Such examples are real life for Minnesota farmers

“We certainly can’t talk about agriculture without talking about the weather,” state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said.

Seeley said that farmers see weather impacts such as increased soil erosion, more floods, higher insurance risks and the need to change how they handle irrigation and other water programs.

Warmer weather means farmers need to change crop varieties, too, he added.

Also, growing seasons are longer, rural roads are being damaged by more frequent freeze-thaw cycles, more insects and other pests are invading Minnesota and soil temperatures are too high to apply nitrogen fertilizer during the normal fall time.

The warming climate is not even year-round, Seeley said. Winters are warming up faster than other seasons.

Willmar’s January low temperatures, for instance, have risen 2.9 degrees, he said. “This is a rather dramatic shift.”

“Let’s not dismiss this, please,” Seeley said. “The data are telling us things are changing. … We need to continue to adapt.”

Changes are coming fast, he said. “It is changing at a pace that is startling.”

Terry Barr, a top official and economist at CoBank, ACB, offered an outlook less extreme than Seeley in presenting a good news-bad news look at ag economics.

Some of the best news for farmers is that they are carrying less debt than in many past years, Barr said. On the other hand, he added, markets likely will remain volatile for the foreseeable future.

With increased production, grain surpluses are possible, Barr said. That will be due, in part, because of increased global competition.

Barr and Frederickson said high land prices in much of the Midwest also could be a problem.

Some Midwest land prices will fall 10 percent to 15 percent in the next few years, Barr predicted, far less drastic than during the 1980s farm crisis.

While much of Tuesday’s news was bleak or mixed, Barr and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., were optimistic that a new farm bill will be completed this year.

Klobuchar, speaking via video from Washington, said that she expects a farm bill framework by Thanksgiving, to be followed by a full farm bill that emphasizes improved farmer crop insurance.

“If we don’t pass a farm bill, we will have a disaster on our hands,” Klobuchar said.

Problems the country could face without a farm bill would range from a possibility of soaring dairy prices to lack of crop insurance to keep farmers in business, Klobuchar said.