Extreme Drought Threatens Farmers’ Livelihoods and Rural Economy

The signs of a changing climate harbinger hard times for agricultural communiities in the Great Plains and the Midwest

Bennet Goldstein June 26, 2023

A dusty Nick Stanek stepped off his tractor after an evening of round baling hay.

Conditions in Vernon County, in southwestern Wisconsin, are currently great for the crop, but not much else. The weather has been so dry, the grass crunches beneath Stanek’s feet. Members of a three-generation farm family, he and his brother also grow corn and soybeans across 400 acres.

But the weather isn’t cooperating like the siblings do.

A recent rain shower coaxed some of the soybeans to germinate, but it wasn’t enough; many have struggled to emerge from the “bone dry” ground.

“Of course, if we don’t get any rain, our crop will be a complete loss,” Stanek says.

Corn and soybean fields dry out in hot, sunny conditions near Mt. Sterling, in Crawford County, Wisconsin, in June.

Farmers are struggling all across the Corn Belt. Drought expanded rapidly throughout the Midwest in June—doubling within the first week after significantly less rainfall than normal. Forecasters say the region is not likely to get relief anytime soon.

Through September, arid conditions are expected to persist or even expand in eastern Iowa and Missouri, Illinois and Wisconsin. More than 80% of corn and soybean crops in Illinois and Iowa—which together produce more than a quarter of the nation’s total—face drought conditions. Farmers are gritting their teeth as their crops dry up and deteriorate.

“Although it’s probably too early to declare massive losses in crops just yet, that potential is certainly there unless we get some decent rainfall,” says Mark Fuchs, a hydrologist at the St. Louis National Weather Service forecast office. But most of the Midwest, excluding Minnesota and northern Wisconsin, can expect an inch of rain or less in the next few days. “It’s not a jaw-busting outlook,” he says.

Todd Shea, with the NWS forecast office in La Crosse, Wisconsin, says dry weather can beget more dry weather “because you don’t have as much water around to add to the atmosphere which can help fuel thunderstorms.”

Circumstances in Missouri are among the worst in the Midwest, with nearly 16% of the state under extreme drought. “We’ve heard a lot from farmers and ranchers, especially ranchers who are having to sell off cattle before they wanted to because they don’t have enough food, hay, grass—things cattle usually feed off of—to sustain their herds,” Fuchs says.

But Stan Nelson is holding onto optimism. The southeast Iowa native farms just 12 miles west of the Mississippi River near Burlington and serves as the first vice president on the Iowa Corn Promotion Board.

In his 40-plus-year career, this drought is one of the earliest he recalls. Nelson sees nearby producers irrigating their fields a month earlier than they typically do. And the variety of corn he plants is currently 10 to 20 inches shorter than it should be at this point in the growing season.

“Our crop is being hurt,” he says. “I just don’t know how much.” But new varieties of row crops can compensate for a lack of water, Nelson says. “I’m not panicked yet.”

Mick Stanek, a third-generation Wisconsin corn and soybean farmer, shows how dry the dirt is in his fields.

Conditions are not yet so dire as those experienced in late 2022 when persistent drought disrupted Mississippi River barge traffic and drew salt water from the Gulf of Mexico upstream, threatening New Orleans’ drinking water supply. But other impacts are evident.

U.S. Geological Survey water gauges have measured below-normal streamflow throughout the upper Mississippi River basin compared to this time last year, including all-time lows at St. Cloud, Minnesota, on the Mississippi River, and in Valley City, Illinois, along the Illinois River.

An aerial photo from October 2022 shows low river levels around Tower Rock on the Mississippi River near the southern Illinois town of Grand Tower in Jackson County. (Reece Streufert, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard has begun issuing safety advisories for barge traffic. Low water has impacted the size and capacity of barge loads, driving up costs, according to Deb Calhoun, senior vice president of Waterways Council Inc., a national lobbying group.

“But many in the industry believe there is the capacity to compensate for the inefficiencies in the near term,” she says in an email. Dredging within the vicinity of Memphis, Tennessee, an occasional bottleneck for Mississippi River barge traffic, is expected to help.

It’s not possible to specifically attribute the current drought to climate change, scientists says, but it falls within a pattern of more extreme weather events.

No two states have the same experience during a drought. Above are examples of some of the impacts experienced in Nebraska in the past. To view a more complete record, and to filter impacts by drought severity, sector and season, for your state check out the interactive State Impacts Tool. (U.S. Drought Monitor)

Models project that in coming years both precipitation and precipitation variability will intensify in some Midwestern states.The region overall could get wetter at longer timescales, according to University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign researchers, with more intense month-to-month fluctuations, leading to increasingly frequent flooding or periods of drought.

A world of extremes leaves open the possibility of a meteorological rebound. And forecasters already predict some improvement this summer in parts of Minnesota along with the western halves of Iowa and Missouri.

“Hope is not lost because we could certainly regain rainfall back to normal, or potentially even surplus,” says Steve Vavrus, interim Wisconsin state climatologist.

If the worst comes to pass in Wisconsin, though, Stanek hopes to “ride it out” and make do with the money he earns from hay and repairing antique tractors, trucks and cars. He doesn’t have crop insurance. “It’ll be nip and tuck,” he says. He must pay a monthly $2,000 mortgage on several properties he owns, and his savings will only last until October.

But, “soybeans are very tough,” Stanek said. “They can sit in the ground for a couple of months and still sprout.”

Tough, just like him.

Tegan Wendland contributed to this story. This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri in partnership with Report for America, funded by the Walton Family Foundation.

Bennet Goldstein

Bennet Goldstein reports on water and agriculture as Wisconsin Watch’s Report for America representative on the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk—a collaborative reporting network across the Basin. Before this, Goldstein was on the breaking news team at the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska. He has spent most of his career at daily papers in Iowa, including the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. Goldstein’s work has garnered awards, including the Associated Press Media Editors award for an explanatory feature about a police shooting in rural Wisconsin, and an Iowa Newspaper Association award for a series that detailed the impacts of the loss of social safety net programs on Dubuque’s Marshallese community. He holds a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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