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Published March 21, 2013, 09:10 AM

Farmers hope rain and snow ease drought

Spring’s arrival means the crop planting season is not far away, and although farmers are worried that the two-year drought will continue, they’ve seen recent signs of hope. Precipitation has increased, boosting farmers’ outlook for this year’s crop.

By: Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio

LINCOLN COUNTY, Minn. — Stroll along Alan Roelofs’ driveway and you’ll hear the sounds of relief: soggy gravel, splashing water and sticky mud underfoot.

The rain and snow that soaked this driveway has Roelofs thinking the drought will disappear just as surely as the snow.

“We had a really nice rain here last week Saturday,” says Roelofs, a corn, soybeans and livestock farmer in southwest Minnesota. “My neighbor put his rain gauge out; he had a little over eight tenths.”

Spring’s arrival means the crop planting season is not far away, and although farmers are worried that the two-year drought will continue, they’ve seen recent signs of hope. Precipitation has increased, boosting farmers’ outlook for this year’s crop.

The rain measured by Roelofs’ neighbor points to a big change from a year ago, when things were dry and abnormally warm. Then, the family garden sprouted radishes by the end of March. That’s not going to happen this year.

“Now you’d have to use a pickaxe to chop through the ice to plant it,” Roelofs says.

The change in the weather has the 63-year-old Roelofs feeling good about the coming crop year. Bolstering that expectation is the forecast from a private weather company he follows that predicts above-normal spring rains.

“Then after that they’re expecting a more warm and moist summer than usual, which would be totally ideal for raising a good crop,” he says.

Officially, most of Minnesota is still locked in drought. But farmers are hoping for wetter weather as eagerly as nearly everyone is waiting for the first signs of spring. Signs of spring are scarce, but farmers are having better luck with the drought.

“You should be getting better, especially with a pretty good snowpack there in much of the state,” says Climate Prediction Center meteorologist David Miskus of the outlook for the drought in Minnesota.

In the last six months, Miskus says, the worst U.S. drought conditions have moved west — so much so that some of the driest states last summer, among them Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, are almost drought free now.

“We’ve gotten more storm systems coming into the central part of the country right now, bringing more snow and rain, and a lot more colder air coming down in out of Canada,” Miskus says. “So, definitely a pattern change compared to last year.”

No one knows for sure if the drought will re-assert itself. But grain traders also say the change in the weather pattern is real and will benefit U.S. crops.

That’s reflected in corn prices. As corn is relatively scarce, prices are high, about $7.30 a bushel. But the price of corn to be delivered next December is about 25 percent less. That reflects industry expectations that better weather and more planted acres will make corn far more abundant by December.

Wells Fargo Agricultural Economist Michael Swanson says prices could go even lower than the current December market of about $5.60 a bushel.

“If we start seeing better soil moisture and better weather pattern outlook, it’s clearly going to go into the low fours,” Swanson says.

For farmers, a large harvest and the resulting price drop would not necessarily be a disaster. The extra corn might be worth enough to offset lower prices.

Swanson says farmers can protect themselves and lock in today’s higher prices by pre-selling some of the coming crop, before prices go lower. But he fears recent history will prevent many farmers from taking that precaution.

“The last three years, anybody’s that’s pre-sold corn hasn’t been the smartest person at the coffee shop,” Swanson says.

Last year is a good example. On the eve of planting, traders expected a big crop. But when the drought took hold, corn prices soared to record levels. That meant almost unheard of profits for everyone who waited to sell. Those who sold their expected harvest in the spring made less.

Roelofs is one farmer who doesn’t like to sell corn early. He wants some indication about how big his harvest will be before making binding commitments. His inkling is that improving weather will make this fall’s crop a good one.

“Right now we definitely do not have drought on our mind,” Roelofs says.

The long wait for spring cheers Roelofs. Last year’s abnormally warm March, in retrospect, seemed to predict the coming drought.

This year, Roelofs is hoping a more normal winter means more normal summer rain. That’s exactly what his land and crops need.

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