Lagging crop conditions could be preview of future Illinois climate

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Darrell Hoemann/The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Water from a field has surrounded bins and flows over a road just north of Tuscola, Ill., along US 45 on May 4, 2017.

Crop conditions in Illinois are lagging behind the five-year average, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture weekly crop progress reports.

As of Monday, Illinois current corn crop is the weakest since the drought of 2012, with just 59 percent of corn being rated “good” or “excellent,” less than the five-year average of 66 percent, the reports show.

The conditions come after an extremely wet spring and a dry June, according to state climatologist Jim Angel.

While the study is not the first to look at a changing climate’s affect on agriculture, the study was the first to look at the growing season in terms of field working days – or the average number of days farmers should be able to work in their fields – to help relate to farmers.

“The context we put it in is pretty new,” said Bradley Tomasek, a former University of Illinois graduate student, who is now pursuing his doctorate at Duke University, and an author of the study.

Under projected climate conditions, Illinois will likely see longer growing seasons, with more rain early in the year and hotter, drier weather as the summer goes on.

Overall, the same amount of rain will likely come, but it will be in bursts, meaning that flooding is more likely. Drought conditions are expected to become more common and more severe.

For farmers, this means lower field workability in the spring and drought in the late summer, Tomasek said.

In the future, the corn planting window will likely be split into two distinct time periods, the study found.

The two periods will marred by their own risks – one in late March and early April that could be harmed by a late frost or heavy rain and one in May that could be impacted by a lack of rain to help the crops grow, or in extreme years, drought.

These projections are decades in the future – at least 30 years out – but Tomasek said that people need to be prepared.

“Our goal is to get people to start thinking about this,” he said. “The closest timeline is still 30 years away. We need to be breeding crops and changing cropping systems to mitigate any potential effects.”

Complementary research has found that an increased amount of carbon in the atmosphere will likely boost plant yields in good years, but lead to significantly less yield and potentially even crop failure in years of drought, which are likely to increase.

While this year’s weather can be an outlier, future climate conditions are projected to be spring 2017.

This year, farmers were able to plant early in the season after a mild spring. But due to heavy rains which caused fields to develop ponding, many farmers were forced replant.

Then, in the past few weeks, there has been a lack of rain, and climatologists are already warning about the early signs of a drought.

Taken in total, the study found that federal crop insurance programs, which protect farmers against crop loss, will have to be adjusted to accommodate future growing change because of these changes to the climate.

The first day that Illinois farmers could plant corn and still be eligible for crop insurance was April 1 in southern Illinois. Many farmers likely would have considered planting before that because of unseasonably warm weather this year.

The last day farmers could plant was June 5 in most of the state.

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