Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published July 11, 2011, 04:45 AM

‘Wet cycle’ brings new challenges for area agriculture

Moisture is both the great friend and great enemy of agriculture. And because agriculture is so important in this part of the world, the amount of moisture we receive has a huge impact on our fields, towns and economy.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Moisture is both the great friend and great enemy of agriculture.

And because agriculture is so important in this part of the world, the amount of moisture we receive has a huge impact on our fields, towns and economy.

For decades, the biggest, most common challenge was getting enough moisture for crops and pastures. I once worked for a newspaper that sometimes sent a photographer to snap a few shots of area fields hit with heavy rain from localized thundershowers. The thinking was big rains were so rare that they were news.

Today, of course, big rains are so common that they rarely create news. The challenge is dealing with excess moisture. This year alone, tens of thousands of area residents have been hurt by floods, and millions of acres of wet fields will go unplanted or drown out.

It seemed to be a good thing, at least to me, when North Dakota entered the so-called “wet cycle” in 1993. More moisture for fields and pastures, I thought.

This year, we’re suffering the awful consequences of too much moisture.

Yes, I know, much of the region has struggled with inadequate rainfall in many years since 1993. There certainly hasn’t been an overabundance, or even a sufficient supply, of water everywhere. That’s unlikely to change, even if we remain in a wet cycle.

But it is fair to say that excess moisture has been a frequent problem in area agriculture for nearly two decades.

We’re already seeing differing generational perspectives on the subject.

If you mention “the wet cycle” to older folks involved in area ag, you’ll often get a knowing nod and a comment such as, “Yeah, I remember a lot of years we were just so dry. “

They wonder if the wet cycle that began in the early 1990s is an aberration. For most of their lifetime, “normal” is the relatively dry conditions that existed from, say, the 1930s to the late 1980s.

Mention “the wet cycle” to young people involved in area ag and you’ll often get a shrug and a comment such as, “Well, it’s wet.”

To them, wet years are normal and their parents’ and grandparents’ stories about drought and damaged crops belong in the history books.

We’re all influenced by our own limited experiences. Personally, after having seen so many dry years in the 1970s and ’80s, I thought the wet years in the early 1990s were a fluke and bound to end sooner rather than later.

After witnessing a decade of “fluke” wet years, I wised up. We have little, if any, idea of what “normal” weather is in this part of the country — or if any such thing even exists here.

Agriculturalists in the region have worked for more than a century to mitigate the downside of our too often too dry climate. Shelterbelts, no-till farming and crop varieties that hold up in drought, among other things, have made farming more efficient and sustainable.

Now, it seems, the challenge is to mitigate the downside of our too often too wet climate.

I don’t pretend to understand all the ways that area agriculture will be affected if “the wet cycle” continues. But wet conditions clearly have a huge influence on what crops are grown and the farming methods used to produce them. Field drainage, crop insurance and federal farm programs are affected. Roads and bridges need more attention.

I gave up long ago on trying to predict long-term weather patterns. But one thing I do know: Area agriculture will continue to evolve to meet the challenges of whatever the weather brings.

Tags: