In Kendell Culp’s corner of northwest Indiana, relentless rain began falling on his farm months ago, saturating the ground his family has nurtured for generations and delaying the start of their planting season by more than a week.
“There’s just not a lot you can do,” he said.
Nearly 90 percent of his corn crop is already growing, as a result of a few dry days and long, strategic hours in the fields. But he has yet to plant a single soybean. Last year, he was done planting everything by the first week of May.
“I’ve never had a yield where I couldn’t get my crop planted,” Culp said, noting that his father, who is in his 80s, recalled the same. “This is unprecedented, what we’re facing.”
For months now, the Culps — and many farmers across wide swaths of the Midwest — have rarely seen days dry enough to work, leading to what agricultural experts are calling a historically delayed planting season that could exacerbate the economic and personal anxieties brought on by a multiyear slump in farm prices and the Trump administration’s trade war with China, the world’s largest soybean buyer.
For the past five years, the 18 states that produce the majority of the United States’ corn crop had an average of 90 percent of their fields planted by the end of May, according to data released Tuesday by the Agriculture Department. At the same point this year, 58 percent of the corn crop is in the ground. The outlook for soybeans is just as dismal, with 29 percent in the ground compared with 66 percent in years past.
In individual states, the gap is even more severe. Just 22 percent of the corn crop had been planted as of May 26 in Culp’s home state of Indiana. Soybeans stood at 11 percent.
“Week after week, farmers haven’t been able to get out in the fields to plant corn and soybeans,” said John Newton, chief economist at the American Farm Bureau Federation, noting that this was the worst planting day on record since the USDA began tracking such data in the 1980s. “The frequency of these disasters, I can’t say we’ve experienced anything like this since I’ve been working in agriculture.”
From the Rocky Mountains to the Ohio River Valley, millions of Midwesterners have endured unremitting rainfall, hundreds of dangerous tornadoes and debilitating flooding brought on by swollen waterways that are spilling into already saturated grounds — much of it farmland.
Of 6,000 flood gauges on waterways across the country, 381 were above flood stage this week across the Central Plains and in the upper Midwest, said Bill Bunting, chief forecaster at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center. Much of the most-severe flooding is concentrated in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, northwest Iowa, southeastern South Dakota and Oklahoma — where on Tuesday the governor declared all 77 counties under a state of emergency.
And in 2019, NOAA has processed nearly 200 more tornado reports than average at this point in the year.
Online, people have shared maps of the Midwest completely underwater, joking that it’s all the new Great Lakes. Farmers are sharing pictures of their fields from last year with ones from right now, illustrating just how far behind they are. They’ve asked for prayers.
Although the setback is causing duress among farmers, it may not necessarily be felt by many consumers in the grocery store, Newton said. Much of the corn crop being affected is grown for livestock feed and ethanol processing, and potential shortages of both might drive up those prices.
“The story of the natural disasters and the flooding that’s been going on in the Midwest sits within a multiyear slump in farm prices,” said Alicia Harvie, the advocacy and farmer services director for Farm Aid. “It’s another wave of an ongoing crisis. It is a perfect storm. It cannot be overstated, the amount of stress and angst in farm country right now.”
Harvie said there are farmers who chose to fill their silos and wait out the suppressed farm prices, only to have floodwaters wash it all away.
Some farmers blame this spring’s extreme weather on the changing climate, another example of the way Mother Nature has become increasingly unruly and unpredictable, alongside historically strong hurricanes, bitter cold and devastating, deadly wildfires. Others, like Culp, say they’ve accepted that farmers can’t control the weather — and should instead look to federal aid and insurance programs that help people like him when the crops don’t cooperate.
Last week, President Trump and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a $16 billion farm aid package to offset losses felt by the U.S. trade war with China. Perdue told reporters that $14.5 billion of the total package would go directly to producers so that “farmers will not bear the brunt” of the tariff showdown.
Other opportunities for support are caught up in congressional gridlock. The Senate voted last week to approve a multibillion-dollar aid package for communities nationwide that have been hit by natural disasters, including those affected by hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the South, wildfires on the West Coast and the flooding that continues to inundate those in the Midwest.
The House’s version of the bill is being held up by Republicans who want it to include funding for Trump’s proposed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The House is expected to vote on the measure next week.
“Funding delayed is funding denied, with farm and agriculture,” Harvie said. “The timing is everything.”
Harvie said that the Farm Aid hotline has been inundated with calls from concerned farmers who are “actively in disaster triage.” Last year, they had a 109 percent increase in calls over those received in 2017, she said. Usually, about 20 to 30 percent of calls are crisis-related. By the end of last year, nearly 75 percent were related to natural disasters. Most weeks, they get calls from farmers who say they are suicidal.
“I can’t even hardly put it into words, it’s just so defeating,” said Bev Lydick, whose family has been farming in Nebraska’s Burt County, along the Missouri River, since 1857. “We have water standing in some fields that we’ve never seen water stand in.”
She said she believes climate change is a contributing factor, and joins a chorus of other farmers in her small community of 1,800 who think the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress bear some responsibility for the way their waterways are being managed.
This is our farm just over the border from Fort Smith, AR in Oklahoma. The silos, feedlot, shops, and farmhand’s house all underwater and still rising. All equipment, animals and people were safely moved out. Total crop loss this year. pic.twitter.com/I3CFtkzTwX— Duck Farm (@deadmallard) May 28, 2019
The next hurdle farmers face is what to do about crop insurance. Each state has deadlines for full coverage, meaning farmers must have their crops in the ground by a certain date to qualify for assistance. Corn comes first, then soybeans. Some of those deadlines have already passed or are fast approaching.
“It becomes an economic decision,” Culp said. “I do think about next year. What’s the seed supply going to be next year? Everybody is just trying to get through the planting season.”
Dig Deeper Environment + Economics
Want to explore the effects of a changing climate on the U.S. economy? Check out our curated list of stories below
Usually, 90% of corn fields are planted by the end of May. This year, only 58% of the corn crop was in the ground by that time because of massive rainfall.
Harvard University prides itself on its climate change research, with projects from students and faculty that have made waves in recent years. But cutting ties with the fossil fuel industry may be a step too far.
Over the course of five years, the U.S. has seen an average of 13 billion-dollar disasters every year. Experts say climate change is impacting the severity of these disasters.