Missouri Ag and Climate Change: Spike In Heavy Rains, Changing Frost Dates Impacting Farmers
Missouri has seen more episodes of extreme weather in recent years, and that’s having an impact on the state’s top industry: agriculture. Farmers have been battling increased flooding and drought.
According to data from NOAA and the Missouri Climate Center, the number of weather events that produced three or more inches of rain has increased by 35 percent, comparing the past two decades to the long-term average.
Agriculture’s economic contribution in Missouri totals $88.4 billion, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. But a spokesperson from the department told KSMU the Missouri Department of Agriculture doesn’t have anyone currently working on climate change issues—and that the topic is “outside of the scope and responsibilities our team members cover.”
An old Missouri saying: "If you don't like the weather, stick around. It'll change."
Missouri has always had fickle weather. The state's residents have learned that even if it's nice one day, the next day might be rainy and cold.
But Tim Schnakenberg, field specialist in agronomy for University of Missouri Extension, said some of the weather patterns in Missouri have been swinging more widely from year to year.
"We've had drought, wet summers. In 2012 and 2018 we had severe drought problems," said Schnakenberg. "But it does appear we've had some wetter periods during the summer months when we don't always have that."
Schnackenburg hesitates to use the term "climate change," but he said weather patterns in Missouri have been swinging more widely from year to year.
He pointed to the increase in heavy rainfall events in Missouri, which has created problems for farmers.
"Planting times or harvest times for crops can get significantly delayed if the ground is either too flooded or too wet," said Schnakenberg.
A family that's been farming for a century grapples with more extreme weather
James Tucker is a 28-year-old farmer in southern Polk County who has seen firsthand the impact of the changing climate on agriculture.
On this day, he’s driving to his 600 acres land at the conflux of the North Dry Sac and Little Sac Rivers. Tucker said, although southwest Missouri has always had unpredictable weather, it’s getting more and more extreme. He remembers a bad flood in December of 2015 that washed a large amount of sand and gravel into his fields.
Last May, the area had several inches of rain, and the fields were all underwater. Tucker had already planted corn.
“Our corn was about a foot tall—14 or 16 inches or so,” said Tucker.
He thought his corn crop was ruined, but the water went down fast enough that the plants were saved.
Farmers in other parts of Missouri weren’t so lucky. Some fields in northern Missouri stayed flooded all summer long.
“I think there’s definitely climate change," said Tucker. "It’s not a belief. It’s being convinced by evidence.”
James’s father, 71-year-old Jim Tucker, has been farming on 700 acres near Willard since he was a child. He remembers flooding in 1993 when the Sac River rose to the top of the bluff and spread over his cropland. More than 300 large round bales of hay were either washed away or ruined. His mother was 80 at the time and had never seen the river that high, he said.
“Since then, the river bottom has flooded like that three times," said Jim Tucker. "That’s climate change, without any question, to bring those kinds of heavy rains into this area.”
Long-term data show 35% increase in heavy rainfall events
Mike Burton, who has a Ph.D. in agronomy and is a professor in the Environmental Plant Science and Natural Resources Department at Missouri State University, pointed to data provided by the Missouri Climate Center and collected by state climatologist, Pat Guinan.
The data show a 35 percent increase in daily rainfall events of three inches or more when comparing the past two decades to the rainfall from the long-term average (1895-2019).
“So, if you are in the Missouri Valley on a flood plain or in another location where you’re farming on a flood plain, the probability that you’ll experience high rainfall events and at least occasional inundation flooding periods is increased,” said Burton.
Data provided to KSMU by the Missouri Climate Center also show that annual temperatures have been above normal in the state for 17 of the last 22 years. The median last spring frost date is occurring a week earlier now than 20 years ago, and the first fall frost date is occurring about five days later in Missouri.
Erosion, heat, shorter farming windows among challenges
James Tucker worries about what the continued changes will mean for farmers.
“People in agriculture depend on the weather, and anytime there’s instability, things get more difficult. We’ve had to buy bigger equipment we can get over the ground faster to try to work around narrower windows than we used to have because of the changing climate,” Tucker said.
Along with keeping fields out of rotation for entire crop years, heavy rainfall can also lead to erosion problems in fields with precious topsoil washing away. Hay production can also be affected by more frequent rainfall.
Another potential impact of climate change, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is on milk production. According to the USDA website, that greater heat stress on dairy cows could lower U.S. milk production anywhere from 0.6 to 1.3 percent by 2030.
There are some who aren’t convinced that the changing weather is due to climate change. Tim Schakenberg said farming practices in Missouri haven’t reflected a warming planet.
“If we’re moving towards a hotter climate, which I can’t really confirm or deny either, you would think the trend would be to use longer season hybrids and varieties with a warmer climate," he said. "But we’ve actually seen the opposite in the industry. There’s been more of a shift towards earlier season soybean and corn all throughout the Midwest.”
But he said that shift is really more for cultural reasons than climate change.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2019 was the second warmest year on record. The planet’s global average temperature last year was 1.71 degrees above the 20th Century average. And nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005.
And, according to a USDA Economic Research Service report “climate change has the potential to adversely impact agricultural productivity at local and regional scales through alterations in rainfall patterns, more frequent occurrences of climate extremes (including high temperatures or drought), altered patterns of pest pressure, and changes in season and diurnal temperature patterns.”