For Midwest farmers, this summer was brutal. In McLean County, soybean and corn crops struggled to survive through short, rare rains while dairy cows and livestock endured intense heat. By June, the drought covered more than half the United States. As Daniel Hajek reports in the final installment of the GLT News Series "Farming: A Growing Concern," this record-breaking season raises questions about climate change in the Illinois heartland.
Dairy farmer Steve Schwoerer explains the future of family run livestock farms and how increased feed prices and a grueling work schedule threaten local operations.
See photos from part 5 of the series
See and hear other parts of the series.
It's a cool September morning as McLean County farmer Jim Kelley begins harvesting his family's 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans. It's a great day to be out in the combine. Clear skies, a light breeze and the trees and grass are green and revived. But Kelley's corn crop tells a different story.
"It didn't get as tall and the leaves aren't as prolific as they would be with a normal type of moisture."
This summer marks one of the driest on record in Illinois and the warmest January to August period in state history. Let's go back to the start of July. Two-thirds of Illinois is under severe drought just as crops are at their most vulnerable.
"Corn was getting to its pollination stage here the last couple of weeks and that's been some of the hottest and driest weather of the summer."
To make matters worse, conditions are perfect for one particular pest. Kelley starts up his sprayer, a huge tractor with long, extendable arms filled with insecticide. Hoards of tiny but destructive spider mites are infesting Midwest beans. They attach to leaves and suck out what little moisture these plants have left.
"With all the hot weather and dry weather they're beginning to be a problem."
Kelley sets off to save his struggling crops. Down the road at RobLee Dairy Farms, 60-year-old Steve Schwoerer is working under the hot July sun. His 36 cows roam dry, dusty pasture.
"These cows weigh 1,600 pounds and when it's 100 degrees, they'll suck down 50 to 60 gallons of water in a day."
And they lose their appetite.
"So if they don't eat their production drops off."
This week, Schwoerer is losing 250 pounds of milk a day from this heat. But he says this is just the beginning. Lower estimates of corn and soybean yields will raise the price of feed.
"There'll be livestock operations that will definitely curtail completely. Either get out of the business of the livestock operation or they will drastically reduce the number of livestock that they feed through this winter."
There's no end in sight. On August 1st, McLean County is declared a natural disaster area as drought conditions move to extreme.
"Absolutely it's extreme."
That's Dr. Dagmar Budikova, a Professor of Geography at Illinois State University.
"But whether it has anything to do with climate change, long term, that still remains to be seen."
Budikova says blaming the drought on global warming isn't so simple. The Northwestern United States had a cooler summer while Florida and Maine had an exceptionally wet June. And while Illinois was experiencing its warmest March on record.
"There's parts of Europe and Asia that were experiencing abnormally cold conditions."
That's state climatologist, Dr. Jim Angel. He says this year's drought goes against expectations for climate change in Illinois.
"If you look at the pattern in the last 20 or 30 years in Illinois, we've actually been wetter than we have drier, so we've had more problems with too much rain and not as much drought."
While Angel says it's unlikely that we'll experience a drought of this magnitude again next year, Budikova argues that.
"In a warmer world, this type of a summer would become more normal."
Which could mean more flash droughts, more insects, drier soil and scorching summers. Climate modeler Dr. Donald Wuebbles at the University of Illinois says the long-term effects of climate change on agriculture are troubling.
"I think it's going to be devastating in terms of potential impacts over the century and even in the coming decades to our children, our grand children and their children."
Still, farmers like Kelley remain optimistic.
"We're still hopeful that our turn is going to come here with moisture."
Finally, relief in September. Remnants of Hurricane Isaac dump over four inches of rain across McLean County. Angel says the drought eased in a matter of days.
"This may be a record for one of the fastest disappearing droughts I've seen so far."
Isaac's arrival was a month late for farmers but back in Kelley's combine his corn is showing hope.
"It has done well for the conditions that it had to grow in this year."
Typically, Kelley will get around 200 bushel per acre in his fields. This year it varies with yields averaging between 160 and just 90 bushel per acre. Still, better than expected. As weather returns to normal, Kelley says he's ready to put this summer behind him.
"I've had friends and we've been out to Las Vegas ourselves a time or two and they'll talk about gambling. And I say, 'Well, I do that every year with trying to grow a crop of corn and beans so the gambling part I don't need to go out there for that.'"
With climate change threatening Midwest agriculture, this summer could be a glimpse of things to come. But as for next year, farmers like Jim Kelley and Steve Schwoerer hope that they'll be dealt a better hand.
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