Weird winter weather stokes farmers’ fears

By Marc Heller | 01/06/2020 01:07 PM EST

Jeff Jorgensen with angus cattle on his farm near Sidney, Iowa. The mild winter so far has allowed cattle to graze easily in harvested cornfields, but Jorgensen said he worries that a melting snowpack farther north could bring a repeat of last spring's flooding.

Jeff Jorgensen with angus cattle on his farm near Sidney, Iowa. The mild winter so far has allowed cattle to graze easily in harvested cornfields, but Jorgensen said he worries that a melting snowpack farther north could bring a repeat of last spring's flooding. Marc Heller/E&E News

SIDNEY, Iowa — Southwest Iowa doesn’t look much like winter these days, with bare ground, mud and roadside patches of green grass around Jeff Jorgensen’s farm. The temperature has been in the 40s as the new year begins.

The mild conditions are little comfort to Jorgensen, who’s more worried about the weather a day’s drive to the north, where the next great Missouri River flood will begin — maybe as soon as this spring.

"Now, I pay attention to the snow cover in the Dakotas, 400 miles away," Jorgensen said yesterday. Some of his fields were underwater from March to June last year when the river, a few miles away, overflowed its banks, preventing planting of corn and soybeans for the whole season.


The reality of climate change is hitting Iowa farmers hard, especially in areas near the Missouri, which separates the state from Nebraska to the west and was the source of record floods last spring. Some fields, including Jorgensen’s and his neighbor’s farm, may not be planted this year — or longer — thanks to the loss of productive soil and big ruts cut in the ground by receding waters. Eighty percent of counties, about 81% of the state, was a federally declared disaster area.

Farmers here already knew the challenges, Jorgensen said, thanks to floods in 2011. But as much as that year was a wake-up call, last spring was much worse and put some farmers out of business. Landowners are stuck with property that’s lost its agricultural value. Many fear a repeat in a few months because heavy snow — as much as a foot and a half — is already sitting in the watershed in North Dakota, with plenty of winter left to go.

Threats from climate change play into politics here, too, as Democratic candidates canvass the state ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) raised the issue at a rally in Mason City, about 4 ½ hours’ drive northeast, on Saturday — although he cited drought, not floods, as the long-term problem.

"I’m not here to alarm you," Sanders said before describing the impact on agriculture. "When we talk about drought, please understand that in Iowa and in other states around the country, great agricultural states, the planting season will be shorter because of extreme weather and because of drought. The quality and quantity of food produced will deteriorate because of shorter growing seasons."

Iowa farmers are sowing corn and soybeans faster than they once did, Jorgensen said, mainly because they’re afraid of heavy spring rain robbing them of planting time. He said he can plant about 3,300 acres of corn within a week, a pace that shocks his 94-year-old grandfather, who farmed here before him.

"We really farm faster than we ever have," Jorgensen said.

Sanders’ description may have missed the mark — the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said precipitation has been climbing for years due to climate change, for instance — but farmers told E&E News they fully accept that weather trends have changed and that the threat is real.

Iowa is growing warmer in winter and hotter in summer, according to the DNR and a September 2019 report from the Iowa Policy Project. Relative humidity has been climbing along with the heat, feeding summer thunderstorms with heavy rains, the DNR said, citing data from the Iowa Climate Change Impacts Committee.

Precipitation is rising across the state but especially in eastern areas, the DNR said, citing an 8% increase in 2008 versus in the 1870s. More recently, the period between May 2018 and April 2019 brought more than 50 inches of rain to Iowa, breaking the old record by more than 2 inches.

Damage to Iowa’s farms affects the state’s two major crops — corn and soybeans — which feed a major biofuels industry. That business, including corn for ethanol and soybean oil for biodiesel, has already been grappling with low commodity prices and mixed policy signals from the Trump administration.

On the other hand, corn and soybean yields have been rising since the 1940s because of improved genetics and growing practices, but also because of a longer growing season and reduced drought stress, according to researchers at Iowa State University. Natalia Rogovska, a postdoctoral research associate, and Richard Cruse, a professor in the Department of Agronomy, noted the trend in a 2011 research paper.

‘This is amazing’

Corn fields in western Iowa. Photo credit: Marc Heller/E&E News
There’s virtually no snow in western Iowa, as a wintry November has yielded to a mild early January — and to continued talk about the state’s weather extremes. | Marc Heller/E&E News

About 30 miles from Jorgensen’s farm, Bill Shipley grows corn on gently sloping ground marked by terraces — long mounds of soil about 3 feet high meant to slow erosion during heavy rains. Without conservation practices like terraces, he said, "you’re losing soil; you’re losing what helps us make a living."

Shipley said he isn’t complaining about a mild, dry winter that allows for more work outside. Cattle can easily graze in the harvested cornfields, munching on the bare stubble from last summer’s crop.

"This is amazing," Shipley said as he drove his pickup along rolling, dusty roads on a cloudless day. "We had enough winter for three winters last year. If you’re going to have a drought, this is a good time of the year for it."

But the lack of ice on nearby streams isn’t necessarily good news, Shipley said. In decades of farming here, he said, he can remember only one year when ponds didn’t consistently freeze over — and that wasn’t a good production year. The ground in Iowa benefits from the usual cycle of freezing and thawing, which reduces soil compaction and helps the ground absorb water, according to soil scientists.

After a cold, snowy November, the weather has turned so mild that some farmers have been spreading manure in the fields, sources told E&E News — a practice that conservationists frown upon in winter and that can violate the law in some places if the ground is frozen, since manure will run off into waterways.

Back in the Missouri River floodplain, work continues to fix what nature has wrought. Debris including propane tanks and rail ties still litter the fields. Georgia-Pacific LLC freight lines traverse the area and are still undergoing repairs; bulldozers pile rocks alongside the tracks to be used to prevent more washouts. Roads are still rutted, though passable.

"This is stupid — it’s supposed to be a road. It’s a construction site," Jorgensen said as he slowed his truck down to navigate the potholes. To the left, fields still need cleaning up to be plantable, he said — assuming they’ll be dry enough to plant in April.

"For me to get this back into production, this is going to be a test," Jorgensen said.