By Lindsay Harmon
Climate Central, Princeton ,N.J.
The searing U.S. drought of 2012 devastated the nation’s corn crop, pushing yields down in some states to their lowest levels in nearly 30 years. According to recently-released numbers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Missouri, Illinois and Indiana were among the Top 10 hardest hit Corn Belt states, with yields at 28-, 26-, and 22-year lows, respectively.
Missouri was hit particularly hard, with corn yields down 42 percent below its 2002-2011 average and Iowa, Kansas and Kentucky were also devastated, with yields at 20-year lows. In Illinois and Indiana, yields were down by more than a third. Kentucky, not a major corn producing state, had the largest overall corn crop failure, with more than a 50 percent reduction in yield, compared to its 2002-2011 average.
In Colorado and Nebraska, where most corn crops are irrigated, far fewer acres of planted corn were even harvested in 2012. In Colorado, only 70 percent of crops were harvested, compared to an average of 85 percent between 2002-2011, and in Nebraska the harvest was down about 7 percent from the 2002-2011 average. In most other states, where crops depend on rain rather than irrigation, the harvest remained high, even as yields declined substantially.
On Friday, the USDA is expected to announce the final crop values for 2012. Even though last year’s drought touched more than 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land, at first glance those figures may not reflect the full extent of crop damage. That’s because the dwindling crop yields drove up prices of corn, soybeans and sorghum in the second half of 2012.
Overall, crop-related farm income was not down substantially in 2012, despite the severe drought. The unusually high crop prices and record insurance payouts — at least $14 billion in government aid has already been doled out — helped offset drought-related profit losses.
Bloomberg News recently reported that farmers are likely to see lower profits in 2013, even if the drought becomes less severe or disappears completely later this year because corn prices will be lower than last year and fewer farmers will qualify for insurance.
Climate change increases the odds of hotter, drier droughts
The second week of February marked the 34th consecutive week in which more than half the land area in the contiguous U.S. has been engulfed by drought, and the 33rd consecutive week in which more than 10 percent of that area was under “extreme drought,” or worse. As this historic drought rolls on through a dry winter, the chances of recovery rest increasingly on a far wetter-than-average spring.
The drought was most likely initially set into motion by the cooler-than-average water temperatures of La Nina in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which influences weather patterns across the continent. But some scientists suggest that the overall warmer climate created by manmade global warming may have amplified this already devastating drought, particularly by triggering more intense heat during the spring and summer of 2012.
A recently released draft of a new federal climate change assessment shows that as the climate continues to warm in the next few decades, drought events are likely to become more frequent and severe, leading to more significant water supply and agricultural impacts in much of the U.S.
Soybeans, the country’s second biggest crop — in both acres and sales — was also hit hard in some states. Kansas saw the most damage, where the average yield was nearly 30 percent lower than in recent years. Nationally, soybean yields were only 5 percent below normal, but Iowa, the biggest soybean producer in the country, had its second-lowest yield in a decade.
Large portions of sorghum crops were also ruined by the drought, particularly in Kansas, the country’s top sorghum producer (harvested sorghum grain is primarily used as animal feed). Throughout June, July and August, the entire state was in drought (with as much as 90 percent in severe drought) and sorghum yields were about 50 percent lower than recent years. Nationally, sorghum yields averaged about 20 percent below normal.
Reporting for this story was contributed by Urooj Raja.
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