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Published February 01, 2012, 07:46 PM

Late-summer hit for area crops?

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — A weather expert is predicting a hot, dry summer in the Upper Midwest, which might hurt crops. However, it may be too soon to say a drought is coming

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — The Upper Midwest could be hit with a hot, dry late summer, which might hurt crops, a weather expert said.

“We could see a very hot August, a very hot September, and with a lack of precipitation,” said Leon Osborne, president and chief executive officer of Meridian Environmental Technology in Grand Forks, N.D.

Though the region isn’t necessarily headed for drought, “We may have turned a climate-shift corner,” he said.

Osborne spoke Feb. 1 in Grand Forks at a market outlook meeting sponsored by RML Trading of Grand Forks. About 225 people attended.

Also speaking were Steve Freed, vice president of research for ADM Investor Services, and Jay Lehr, an economist and futurist whose website says that he “makes people feel good about the environment and American agriculture.”

The Upper Midwest has been unusually wet for years. Many fields have been too wet to plant, particularly last spring.

But very little precipitation has fallen in the past few months, and most of the region now is in low-level drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor Index, an Omaha, Neb.-based partnership of federal and academic scientists.

“There are very strong indications” that the region’s so-called wet cycle has ended and that a dry cycle is beginning, Osborne said.

Though it’s too soon to know whether a drought is coming, “We are trending toward a drier environment that looks like it will be multi-year in nature,” he said.

Osborne predicted below-normal precipitation through April, followed by above-average precipitation in May through the middle of June.

“Not way above normal on the precipitation, but enough to make it noticeable,” he said. After that, however, “We start to turn the spigot off.”

Given the forecast for a hot, dry August and September, “The question is, will we have enough soil moisture to finish out the crops?” he said.

Old, new predictions

Osborne predicted in December that the region would experience well-below-average temperatures this winter. So far, the exact opposite has been true. Other weather forecasters across the United States and Canada also mistakenly predicted an unusually cold winter, according to published reports.

“Clearly there were some surprises that came our way,” Osborne said Feb. 1.

“We’re not perfect. Hopefully, we’re better than we were last December,” he said of his previous prediction.

His new prediction is for near-normal temperatures, on average, through April, though major fluctuations are likely.

“It’s going to be a roller-coaster ride,” he said.

His initial prediction of a cold winter was based, in part, on the presence of La Nina, a weather phenomena involving cooling of tropical Pacific water, Osborne said.

But La Nina hasn’t had its typical effect this winter, he said.

Also contributing to the relatively warm winter is the jet stream, which has split in two and kept cold Arctic air to the north, Osborne said.

The jet stream is a current of fast-flowing air at high altitudes that plays an important role in weather formation.

The other speakers

Freed said that marketing grain, never an easy task, may be particularly difficult in 2012.

Volatile weather and the uncertain state of the global economy will complicate marketing, he said.

His best guess is that the world economy will slow this year and slow even more in 2013, which would work against crop prices, “unless there’s a weather problem” that cuts into production, he said.

He was optimistic about agriculture’s future, but stressed caution.

“I don’t think this (recent high prices and strong net profits) is a bubble,” he said.

Even so, several big crops in a row could push grain prices below the cost of production, he said.

Lehr said the public is out of touch with modern agriculture.

“Our biggest problem is, the public no longer respects us (or) understands what we do,” he said. “They no longer revere what we do.”

He urged farmers to spread their message outside their circle of fellow agriculturalists.

“We have to talk more to non-farmers,” he said.

Lehr was upbeat about agriculture’s short- and long-term future, stressing the value and importance of technology.

“The future has never been brighter,” he said.