Midwestern farmers’ struggles with extreme weather are visible from space


Composite satellite images created by The Washington Post show Midwest farmland in late June 2018 and the same week in 2019. (NASA/MODIS)

From space, the U.S. Midwest is more brown belt than farm belt right now.

At this time of year, a band of deep Kelly green should spread from Ohio to North Dakota as corn and soybeans race to pack on size before they pollinate and bear fruit. But 2019’s unprecedented rains have uprooted the typical course of events. Some crops are waterlogged and stunted. Others won’t be planted at all.

Unplanted, drowned or late fields have two things in common: They look brown from space, and they mean farmers will probably harvest less corn and soybeans this year than they had planned.

Vegetation condition

in the farm belt, with data

only forcrop-growing areas

Deviation from multiple-year mean

High

plant vigor

Normal

Low

plant vigor

N.D.

MINN.

Minneapolis

WISC.

S.D.

MICH.

IOWA

NEB.

OHIO

ILL.

IND.

Springfield

KAN.

Wichita

MO.

200 MILES

Note: Mean data is for June 18-24, week 25

Vegetation condition in the farm belt,

with data only for crop-growing areas

Deviation from multiple-year mean

High plant vigor

Normal

Low vegetative

condition

N.D.

MINN.

Minneapolis

WISC.

S.D.

MICH.

IOWA

NEB.

OHIO

IND.

ILL.

Springfield

KAN.

St. Louis

MO.

200 MILES

Note: Mean data is for June 18-24, week 25

Vegetation condition in the farm belt,

with data only for crop-growing areas

Deviation from multiple-year mean

Higher plant vigor and

chlorophyll content

Normal

Low vegetative condition

and plant heartiness

N. DAKOTA

MINNESOTA

Fargo

MICH.

WISCONSIN

Minneapolis

Eau Claire

S. DAKOTA

MICHIGAN

Sioux Falls

Madison

Detroit

IOWA

NEBRASKA

Chicago

Des Moines

OHIO

Omaha

INDIANA

Columbus

ILLINOIS

Indianapolis

Springfield

St. Louis

KANSAS

MISSOURI

Wichita

100 MILES

Note: Mean data is for June 18-24, week 25

Vegetation condition in the farm belt, with data only for crop-growing areas

Deviation from multiple-year mean

Higher plant vigor and

chlorophyll content

Normal

Low vegetative condition

and plant heartiness

N. DAKOTA

MINNESOTA

Fargo

MICH.

WISCONSIN

Minneapolis

Eau Claire

S. DAKOTA

MICHIGAN

Sioux Falls

Madison

Detroit

Chicago

IOWA

NEBRASKA

Des Moines

Omaha

OHIO

INDIANA

Columbus

ILLINOIS

Indianapolis

Springfield

KANSAS

St. Louis

MISSOURI

Wichita

100 MILES

Note: Mean data is for June 18-24, week 25

Some farms were devastated by the deluge, particularly smaller family operations that lacked insurance coverage and those that were washed out by flooded rivers. But thanks to a recovery in commodity prices and what University of Illinois economist Scott Irwin estimated will be a $20 billion infusion of federal money, those that are not knocked out by this perilous planting season are likely to come out of the disaster ahead.

Planted late or never

As seeds begin to germinate and emerge, corn and soybeans are further behind than they’ve ever been at this point in the year, according to about four decades of data from the Agriculture Department.

Corn progress

Planted

Emerged

This

year

Previous

years

100%

Previous

years

This

year

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

Soybean progress

Planted

Emerged

100%

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

Corn progress

Planted

Emerged

This

year

Previous

years

100%

Previous

years

This

year

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

Soybean progress

Planted

Emerged

100%

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

Corn progress

Planted

Emerged

Previous

years

This

year

100%

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

Soybean progress

Planted

Emerged

100%

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

Corn progress

Planted

Emerged

Previous

years

This

year

100%

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

Soybean progress

Planted

Emerged

100%

75

50

25

0

April

May

June

July

April

May

June

July

For corn, planting is effectively over and the die has been cast, although we won’t know the results until late fall. Soybean acres are not likely to be fully planted, either — the end of the planting window, unofficially considered to be July 4 — looms large.

Now, beleaguered farmers will attempt to wring a respectable harvest out of fields Irwin likened to a “war zone for growing corn and soybeans.”

“Everything that could go right went perfect for growing corn and soybeans last year,” he said. “This year has been pretty much the opposite. So far, everything that can go wrong has gone wrong.”


Water floods a cornfield in Malden, Ill., in late May. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Planted doesn’t mean thriving

When we seek to understand the brown Corn Belt, a hellish planting season is just the beginning. Planting totals are creeping higher, but many fields were planted in suboptimal conditions and farmers will be dealing with the fallout until harvest time.

The extraordinary circumstances have scrambled USDA data and made reliable statistics scarce, according to Todd Hultman, a market analyst with the data firm DTN. Hultman expects farmers across the Midwest to plant millions fewer acres of corn than initially predicted and said a large but unknown number have been forced to exercise a crop insurance provision that allows them to take a limited payout if they were unable to plant certain acres. (Farmers may still plant cover crops in those acres to improve the soil, block weeds and earn extra income, but those won’t show up in satellite images until later in the season.)

The production squeeze from the lower acreage will be multiplied by what Kevin McNew, chief economist at Farmer’s Business Network, estimates will be a 10 percent drop in production per acre, thanks to the season’s miserable start.

Irwin said: “What corn got planted in June, a lot of it was in terrible conditions. They normally never would have planted corn in ground that was that wet.”

Soybeans are highly sensitive to late planting, according to Ohio State University’s Laura Lindsey, a soybean specialist who tests crop yields and advises farmers through the school’s agricultural extension program. With each day of delay after May 1, farmers’ likely harvest ticks downward. And starting in mid-June, they begin to accrue late-planting penalties from crop insurance providers, which reduces their final coverage. These incremental losses can make or break farms.

When Lindsey toured Ohio soybean country on June 25, empty fields abounded. And the soybeans she did find? They were anemic little things with little potential to produce a load of legumes.

Compare satellite views of the area around Springfield, Ill., where most land is covered in corn or soybeans, to the previous year and you see why Irwin compared south-central Illinois to a war zone.

June 15, 2018

Decatur

Springfield

Chatham

Taylorville

ILLINOIS

Pana

Carlinville

10 MILES

June 25, 2019

Decatur

Springfield

Chatham

Taylorville

Pana

Carlinville

10 MILES

June 18, 2018

Decatur

Springfield

Chatham

Taylorville

ILLINOIS

Pana

Carlinville

June 25, 2019

Decatur

Springfield

Chatham

Taylorville

Pana

Carlinville

10 MILES

June 15, 2018

Decatur

Springfield

Chatham

Taylorville

Shelbyville

ILLINOIS

Pana

Carlinville

10 MILES

June 18, 2019

Decatur

Springfield

Chatham

Taylorville

Shelbyville

Pana

Carlinville

June 15, 2018

June 25, 2019

Decatur

Decatur

Springfield

Springfield

Chatham

Chatham

Taylorville

Taylorville

ILLINOIS

Shelbyville

Shelbyville

Pana

Pana

Carlinville

Carlinville

10 MILES

June 15, 2018

June 25, 2019

Decatur

Decatur

Springfield

Springfield

Chatham

Chatham

Taylorville

Taylorville

ILLINOIS

Shelbyville

Shelbyville

Pana

Pana

Carlinville

Carlinville

10 MILES

Many of those brown acres are counted as planted, though they're not always guaranteed to succeed.

The incentives are complicated. For example, farmers may stretch the definition of acceptable planting conditions not because they expect success but because it was the safest way to guarantee they would be included in the president’s latest farm bailout. Irwin estimates they’ll get about $50 an acre from the bailout — in a typical year, that could as much as double their profit.

A farmer might also plant because, if crop prices rally in the coming months, they would stand to gain more per acre from the crop insurance they purchased before planting season — even if their crop limps across the finish line. And if conditions are perfect and the crop thrives, farmers could make even more. Many chose to roll the dice and bet on higher prices, Irwin said.

There’s (some) hope

If July and August deliver the ideal balance of heat and precipitation and commodity prices keep climbing, some farmers could thrive this year. But the ultra-late start means everything will be riskier — the vital pollination stage will coincide with less favorable temperatures, for example, and harvest will be delayed.

Current indications for July aren’t promising, McNew said. “It’s expected to be cooler and wetter than normal, and that will not bode well for a crop that needs heat and dry to grow,” he said.

While higher prices will perhaps reward many Corn Belt farmers for surviving the most challenging year they’ve ever seen, Lindsey called the situation in her hard-hit region devastating, especially on the heels of a few down years and a rough harvest and winter. “I don’t think we’re seeing the full repercussions yet,” she said. “The effects of this year will be felt in Ohio for several years to come.”

“Right now, farmer stress levels are really high,” Lindsey said. “Farmers are worried about losing their farms.”

Sources: NASA MODIS imagery was composited using Google Earth Engine, white pixels depicted in the imagery are cloud cover. The mean vegetation-condition index comes from the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Crop progress data also comes from NASS and is as of the week ending June 30. Planting figures begin in 1980, emergence figures begin in 1999. It covers 18 major farming states and the vast majority of the crop. Sentinel 2 satellite imagery via the European Space Agency was used for the Springfield comparison.

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