This blog post was co-authored by Shana Udvardy.
The year 2019 has been one of climate extremes.
A brutal Memorial Day weekend heat wave broke triple-digit records in many places, 6,000-plus wildfires burned nearly 200,000 acres in California, an “ultra-intense” Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas (as well as other slow-moving destructive storms). To cap this, there were mind-boggling amounts of precipitation dumped on many parts of the United States. Among the hardest-hit areas were the Midwest and South-Central United States, which experienced record flooding that severely hurt agriculture there.
Let’s recap recent extreme precipitation.
Back in May of 2019, we showed how precipitation during the May 2018-April 2019 period that NOAA calls “the wettest 12-month period” ever recorded in the United States coincided with a big spike in flood alerts. In late April when we reported that, it had already rained more than the 20th century yearly annual average, and up to one foot of rain was dumped on northern and central parts of the US. The increase in flood alerts meant that more people and infrastructure were likely at risk due to more frequent and heavier rainfall events.
Such a walloping amount of rain is unprecedented in recent history. In fact, between January and June, precipitation in many areas of the Northern Great Plains, the Southern Plains, and the Midwest was between 200-600 percent the historical normal amount. That’s right – some places saw twice as much while other places saw six times as much, as the maps below, assembled from NOAA’s Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Center data show.
In addition to putting lives and infrastructure at risk, this spring’s unprecedented extreme precipitation severely impacted farmers and the agricultural crops they produce.
The Farm Bureau recently estimated that in 2019, extreme precipitation and flooding in the Midwest prevented nearly 20 million acres of insured crops from being planted, almost doubling the previous record set in 2011. Waterlogged fields prevented many farmers from planting in a timely fashion (and some could not plant at all). Flooding interrupted transportation of grain and fertilizer along the Upper Mississippi River, further delaying planting activities for farmers that use the river as a transportation lane. In South Dakota, the flooding on the James River prevented the planting of 3.9 million acres.
In June, Congress passed an emergency aid package to bump up coverage for prevented planting, which refers to acreage that farmers are unable to sow due to wet conditions. That would go a long way to help farmers in states like Illinois and Missouri which also had large prevented-planting losses at 2.5 and 2.1 million acres, respectively.
Spike in agricultural losses from extreme precipitation
Extreme precipitation in the Plains and the Midwest during early 2019 was unprecedented. But to what extent have those extremes contributed to agricultural losses this year? Understanding the contribution of extreme precipitation to financial burdens and emotional hardship that farmers are enduring this season can help us inform policies to reduce such misery–especially if such extremes are repeated in the future.
Although the 2019 rain season was well outside of the historical, extreme precipitation in the United States is projected by climate models to increase under both lower and higher emissions scenarios. So clearly, we can’t rule out that there will not be a repeat of precipitation of this year’s magnitude.
To explore the role of precipitation extremes in crop losses, we took a look at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Risk Management Agency’s Cause of Loss historical data files, which contain information on agricultural indemnities paid out to farmers who file claims on insured crops. The claims data include the reason for the loss of each crop, and are available as far back as 1989, which allowed us to calculate a historical average for 1989-2018 and compare it with 2019.
We included states in the Northern Great Plains, Southern Plains, and Midwest regions as well as some states in the Mississippi River floodplain (see the figure below for the full list of states). First, we were curious to know if the fraction of the number of claims attributed to precipitation, rain, flooding, moisture, or cold wet weather was substantially different in 2019 compared with the previous three decades or so. You can see below that large changes occurred between April and June in both periods due to “Excess Moisture/Precipitation/Rain,” increasing in 2019 by nearly 43, 30, and 17 percentage points in April, May, and June, respectively. Surprisingly, losses attributed exclusively in the “Flood” category have historically been a small fraction of losses and grew only slightly in 2019.
Corn, soybeans, and wheat saw the largest losses–in both dollars and acreage
Crop losses from January to November of 2019 for corn, soybean, and wheat in the states we analyzed amounted to $3.370 billion. But how are those losses distributed among the states, and more importantly, how much of each crop’s total acreage was lost?
We calculated the percentage of acres lost out of the total acreage dedicated to each of these crops to account for differences in total acreage in each state. We combined the Cause of Loss data with the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Crop Acreage Data on cropland use. The most recent year-to-date report available included acreage as of 1 November 2019.
Because the report does not break down reported acreage by month, we could not directly compare with the April through June period used in the previous figure, so we looked at January through November. When we slice the data this way, we can see that states were impacted very differently.
Just like for prevented planting, South Dakota stands out due to the largest total dollar losses in corn ($627 million), soybeans ($261 million), and wheat ($28 million). However, that represented between one-fifth and one-third of acreage dedicated to each of those crops in the state. But Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi saw much smaller dollar amounts that wiped out around half of total wheat acreage (Arkansas and Louisiana) and nearly 100 percent of Mississippi’s wheat.
Worrisome financial implications for the short and long term compounded by climate
All of this had financial implications, as this year’s difficult weather conditions and extreme precipitation during the harvest season hindered crop production which in turn likely contributed to driving down farmland values. Agricultural economists are concerned that if the prolonged downturn in farm incomes that started in 2013 extends, farmers may not be able to cope with accumulating debt and financial insolvency, a situation that can be magnified by the added uncertainty from precipitation extremes like the ones we saw this year.
There is already much uncertainty that farmers cope with – for example, the effects of trade policy (e.g., tariffs), and price variability in a globalized economy of feed, fuel, and food markets. If we add to this that over the long term, climate change is imposing patterns of extremes in weather variability that are increasingly hard for farmers to anticipate and plan for, and that may raise the cost of crop insurance premiums and even the reach of federal subsidies, it becomes painfully obvious to see that more financial burdens and emotional hardship for agricultural producers may be visible from where we stand, at the end of the 2010 decade and closer to the climate decade.
It will become worse, as scientists have realized there are compound flooding risks of climate change, which means that these sorts of disasters are often coming from more than one source of water at the same time. Besides flooding, there are other climate impacts on farms and farmworkers, like excessive runoff and leaching, and others we don’t often think about, from extreme heat and pesticides, and reduced income and availability of work.
Federal government has an obligation to protect farms and farmworkers
The elephant in the room that not many in the federal government want to acknowledge is the need to act on climate change by reducing global heat-trapping emissions. It is gut-wrenching to see the financial and emotional hardship on farmers due to extreme weather and climate change-fueled disasters.
The General Accounting Office (GAO) has recommended that the federal government adopt a strategic approach to adaptation efforts in order to increase preparedness for climate impacts and reduce its financial exposure to climate change risks. Federal leadership to address the GAO’s recommendations could go a long way towards reducing fiscal impacts borne by the federal government related to flood impacts in the agricultural sector, already the “costliest form of natural disaster” in the United States.
Here we lay out four main policy areas that can help move the needle on flood resilience in the agriculture sector: 1) reforming crop insurance; 2) prioritization and increased resources for agriculture conservation programs; 3) resources dedicated to climate change research; and 4) protecting socially disadvantaged farming communities and farmers.
Reforming crop insurance
The federal government is not meeting its commitments to manage climate change risks, according to GAO. In their recent High Risk report, the GAO cites a lack of strong leadership and the current administration’s revocation of existing climate change policies as the reason that both the federal crop insurance and flood insurance programs remain high risk. The major flaw in these programs is that they simply were not designed to generate funds needed to fully cover all losses and expenses. The High Risk report estimates that crop insurance would cost the federal government an average of about $8 billion annually from 2017 through 2026.
The GAO’s recommendations for addressing these issues include the need to incorporate long-term resilience into good farming practices that are required for claims payments, and that USDA must establish and monitor milestones to ensure that these actions meet the goal of improving resilience. Finally, it is also important that the USDA prioritize grants, low-interest loans and technical assistance for small farmers to do this.
Farmers must have safety nets like crop insurance in place, especially with the likely increase in volatility in everything from financial pricing to crop production. However, reforms are clearly needed. Dr. Ricardo Salvador at UCS has pointed out the critical importance of tying crop insurance to required conservation practices. In short, we must reward farmers for increasing their resilience to climate risks as well as to other risks like soil degradation. In doing so, we must recognize the limits of what this can accomplish and also consider different crops and practices, especially if climate change alters growing seasons drastically as we approach the mid-century and beyond.
Prioritize and increase resources for agriculture conservation programs
Within the massive legislative authority related to food, farm and agricultural policies in the United States is the Farm Bill. The 2018 Farm Bill includes several programs that encourage good stewardship of farmland. These programs assist farmers with practices designed to reduce flooding, soil damage, fertilizer runoff, and other impacts. One such program is the Conservation Stewardship Program that UCS has estimated quadruples the value of each taxpayer dollar.
Why should the nation prioritize and increase resources for these programs? Our colleague, Dr. Marcia Delonge speaks to the waiting list for USDA conservation programs that is a stark indication of unmet needs. In addition to this, a survey of more than 2,800 farmers from seven states shows that the majority of farmers want more incentives to adopt practices that reduce runoff and soil loss, improve water quality, and increase resilience to floods and droughts.
The nation must also invest more resources into USDA’s permanent disaster assistance programs that help farmers recover after extreme weather events, which include the Emergency Conservation Program, the Emergency Forest Restoration Program, and the Emergency Watershed Protection program. Of particular importance is increasing funding for floodplain easements, a voluntary program that allows a landowner to sell a permanent conservation easement to USDA, and in turn the agency improves the floodplain’s functions and values.
Resources dedicated to climate change research
At present, the United States does not research and share agroecological methods nearly to the degree that it invests in ways that enrich the large agribusiness sector. The nation must support increasing public investment in agricultural research—especially for transformative agroecological research, which currently constitutes a tiny fraction of USDA’s research budget. This type of research is not only vital for making agriculture in the United States more sustainable and resilient; it is supported by hundreds of scientists and farmers alike.
Prioritizing resources for socially disadvantaged farming and ranching communities and for the next generation
Historically, farm subsidies have been systematically denied to farmers of color, a discriminatory practice that has contributed to a substantial dwindling of Black farmers from about 1 million in 1910 to just about 45,000 in 2017. These disparities also cut across class lines, as the wealthiest 10 percent of recipients of the recent Market Facilitation Program obtained the majority of the program’s funds. Given these disparities, we can do a better job at how we provide resources to socially disadvantaged farming and ranching communities and the farmers for the next generation.
Moving forward: Climate action and a federal strategic approach toward resilience to impacts
Clearly, extreme precipitation events are increasing the vulnerability of agricultural production and the livelihoods of farmers, manifested in large crop losses and contributing to financial insolvency. The unprecedented amount of rain during the spring of 2019 has demonstrated that farmers, especially farmers of color and with low incomes, will be hard-pressed to bounce back in the years to come from climatic shocks that are breaking records and becoming more difficult to plan for and predict.
The federal government has an obligation to limit carbon emissions that are warming the planet and contributing to extreme weather events. But there are also common-sense measures such as disclosing financial risk, improving crop insurance and conservation programs, allocating resources to climate change research, and addressing historical disparities in subsidies and access to credit that have disproportionately impacted low-income farmers, most of which are of color. Including these recommendations in a strategic approach is a way forward to help reduce vulnerability of our farming system under a changing climate.