This is a national emergency and should be front-page news coast to coast. Yet it gets only sporadic coverage. The tens of thousands of acres that have burned up in California or the dozens of wildfires throughout the Midwest and West and the Covid epidemic get regular coverage. These have been and are devastating to be sure. But the emergency referenced here, which is going to eclipse the fires many times over, is the continuing effect the drought has had and will have on agriculture and the economy.
Besides teaching and writing and logging and operating a sawmill, I have been a hay producer for twenty years. Before that I raised beef cattle for thirty years. Before that I was born and raised on a small dairy farm, a part of which is also my lifelong home. Never has there been a drought like this in my memory.
Last year was a hard one for area farmers, but this year’s forage yields are much worse at 25 to 30 percent of average. Some fields of hay are not harvestable. Driving past the Remer area this afternoon, there were several fields where there had been an attempt at cutting, but were given up on after a few rounds. The hay, what there was, was short and the drought has left it brittle and tough and nearly impossible to cut. One field of about four acres had one large bale sitting at its edge, the farmer’s total yield for hours of work.
I have customers that have been with me for twenty years and I cannot fill their orders completely. For the first time I have received monetary tips from some for the hay I could provide. Hay prices are shooting up. I get messages almost daily from people desperately seeking hay for their horses, cattle, goats, and even rabbits. I have to tell them the same thing. Try elsewhere.
My contacts from across northern and central Minnesota tell me the same story. The forage harvest is a disaster. Farmers are cutting the grass in road ditches and swamps normally too wet to harvest. This is generally poor quality livestock feed, but in January it is better than feeding snowballs.
The ripple effect of this drought is already playing out. Farmers and ranchers are selling off livestock as pastures dry up and anticipate not having enough feed for the winter months. This will drive the market price of livestock down for farmers this fall, which may or may not trickle down to lower prices for consumers, but even if there is a modest drop, it will be short-lived. After the ‘glut’, there will likely be shortages and rapidly escalating consumer prices. And not just in the livestock industry.
This spring we planted 15 acres of oats as a cover for new clover and grass seeding as part of a regular rotation of field rehabilitation. The variety of oats planted should reach three feet in height as it is bred for a larger straw harvest. These oats look lush and green from a distance, but up close one sees the problem. They are severely stunted and may well be too short for the combine to harvest. The under seeding of grass and clover has withered and died, so these fields will have to be plowed and reseeded next spring.
Reports of stunted grain crops are the norm throughout the Grain Belt. Wheat, oat, corn, barley, sunflower, and soybean projected harvests are all trending downward. This will continue to drive food prices upward following an ongoing trend. The losses to the agriculture industry will be staggering and consumers will feel the pain in their bank accounts.
A couple questions come to mind. Have I exaggerated the situation to the point of being an alarmist? I sincerely hope I am dead wrong. But the upper level winds (the Jet Stream) tell the story. A huge ‘dome’ of high pressure settled over almost all of the country west of the Mississippi early and remains in place. This nearly stagnant air mass is a natural ‘sink’ for hot air. It has produced record heat from Western Canada all across the West and Midwest. British Columbia saw the temperature top out at 120F, a record for anywhere in Canada for as long as records have been kept. And with the record heat has come record low precipitation with fewer storm systems. Climatologists predicted this a decade or more ago based on increasing temperatures worldwide. June was the warmest June ever recorded in North America including even during the record setting Dust Bowl Days.
The other question is: What can we do about it? First we have to acknowledge there is a climate crisis. We can hope that this year is an anomaly and next year will return to past normals. Yet there is no reason to believe the warming trend over the past several decades will not continue. A wiser plan would be to start making contingency plans, cooperation rather than adversarial, for how we associate with Nature and our effect upon it. The various challenges confronting humanity are not going to be mitigated by magic or wishful thinking or praying to the rain gods or complacency, but rather a complete overhaul of our attitudes and actions regarding our occupation of this planet.