A relatively snow-free winter in the Upper Midwest has some officials worried about damage to agriculture if the dry weather persists into spring planting.
Minnesota’s agriculture and commerce commissioners, Dave Frederickson and Mike Rothman, signaled their concern when they advised farmers last week to buy crop insurance before next month’s deadline. Most of Minnesota is in the earliest stage of drought, and parts of Iowa and the Dakotas also are abnormally dry or worse.
It’s a marked change from this time last winter when many farmers in the Upper Midwest were more worried about spring flooding, and it comes at a time when farmers are hoping to take advantage of what’s expected to be another good year for crop prices.
Minnesota state Climatologist Greg Spoden said that the warning to buy crop insurance was reasonable given that much of the region suffered through its driest autumn on record after the rain suddenly stopped in 2011.
“They’re not being alarmist at all,” he said.
But, there’s also plenty of time for the skies to open up, rain and snow to fall and the soil to recover before spring planting, he said. The Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service says there’s a greater-than-normal chance of precipitation in the eastern two-thirds of Minnesota and Iowa in March and a reasonable chance of normal precipitation across the Dakotas, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin for March through May.
“I don’t mean to imply that disaster is imminent,” Spoden said. “It just means it’s prudent to start to prepare for that possibility.”
North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said many of his farmers couldn’t even plant last spring because it was so wet, and the state still has plenty of moisture below the soil surface. If farmers can get their seed into the ground and get enough spring rain for it to germinate, the plants should be able to send roots down to the wet zone and produce a good crop.
“It certainly is up in the air, but there are so many other things to be worried about at this time,” Goehring said. “This one here might translate into something of concern or nothing at all, but it is a good time if we’re going to be experiencing a drought to experience it now.”
Several farmers said they’re not particularly worried yet, but they have been in touch with their insurance agents. The Upper Midwest regularly sees some of the country’s highest participation in the federal crop insurance program anyway.
The weather “is the one thing that’s out of my control, but I do plan to buy crop insurance,” said Alex Pirkl, who grows corn, soybeans, peas and sweet corn near Blooming Prairie in one of the driest parts of south-central Minnesota.
Many farmers are enjoying the dry winter because it’s allowing them to catch up on fixing buildings, cutting trees, laying drainage tiles and other work.
Michael Schmidt raises corn, soybeans, alfalfa, cattle and sheep near Dell Rapids in a part of eastern South Dakota that’s in a severe drought. He said he’s had to spend only about an hour and a half clearing snow this winter, and that’s freed him to tackle a long list of deferred chores.
“I don’t want it to stay this dry going into spring and summer,” Schmidt said. “We need some rain, but if we don’t get it ’till spring, that’s fine with me.”
Matt Schuiteman, who raises corn, soybeans, hogs and cattle near Sioux Center in northwestern Iowa, said he’s hopeful because he’s seeing signs the dry weather pattern will start to break up. A system that was expected to drop only an inch or two of snow on his area early last week ended up dumping a surprising 6 inches. It’s been melting off thanks to highs in the 40s this week, and the moisture seems to be soaking into the ground.
“I would much rather have a dry spring than a wet spring, so I welcome the dry weather, assuming that at some point we get normal moisture,” Schuiteman said. “But our best crops get off to a good start in a dry spring.”