Farmers Detail 2012 Drought Losses at Senate Hearing

By By Elizabeth Harball, E&E reporter
February 16, 2013, 4:53:52 AM EST

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Last year's record-high temperatures and worst drought conditions since 1934 devastated farms across the United States. According to a report by the independent Aon Benfield Reinsurance group, about 1,800 U.S. counties were declared drought disaster areas, resulting in more than $35 billion in economic losses, mostly due to failed crops.


At a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing yesterday, four farmers from across the United States delivered sobering reports on how extreme weather affected their production, calling for improved federal aid in the face of what looks to be another brutal year.

Anngie Steinbarger of Edinburgh, Ind., reported that on the nonirrigated part of her and her husband's 1,500-acre farm, corn production averaged 10 bushels per acre, while they had hoped for 170 bushels per acre before the drought set in.

The couple also expected to harvest 70 bushels per acre of soybeans, but the average yield was about 30 bushels per acre. Last year's crop yields were the lowest on record for Steinbarger's farm.

"It is so frustrating to watch the crop wither and die," Steinbarger said. "I actually used our fields as training examples for [studying] permanent wilt and drought-stunted corn."

In May 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expected to see a record crop of 14.8 billion bushels, according to a statement by Joe Glauber, USDA's chief economist. But last month, USDA estimated that the 2012 corn yield was closer to 10.7 billion bushels. From August to September 2012, USDA rated more than half of U.S. corn crops as being in "poor" or "very poor" condition.

Sour year for cherries

Michigan cherry farmers were also hit hard by unusually warm weather, said Jeff Send, vice chairman of the Cherry Marketing Institute. Send manages 800 acres of sweet and tart cherry trees near Leelanau, Mich., and reported that although his state has the capacity to produce 275 million pounds of tart cherries, 11.6 million pounds were harvested in 2012.

"Last year was the most disastrous year I and the cherry industry have ever experienced," Send said. In addition to a blight of bacterial canker, anomalously high spring temperatures devastated Michigan's tart cherry trees.

"In mid-March, there were seven days of 80-degree temperatures, which is unheard of in northern Michigan," Send explained. "Cherry trees came out of dormancy and began to grow. This left them completely vulnerable to the next 13 freezes in April."

Steinbarger, Send and two other farmers requested expansions and improvements to federal insurance and disaster relief programs for the agriculture industry to deal with future extreme weather conditions.

Drought conditions in for the long haul

Roger Pulwarty, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Integrated Drought Information System, confirmed earlier reports that the drought in the West and the Midwest is likely to continue into 2013 (ClimateWire, Feb. 8).

But according to Randall Miles, associate professor of soil science at the University of Missouri, dry conditions could even continue into 2014. "This year is going to have to have some pretty doggone good inputs" for the drought to end by next year's growing season, said Miles.

"It can happen, but the probability is really low," he said. "We just don't have much moisture stored away."

At the hearing, Pulwarty hesitated to attribute the current drought to climate change. When asked by Agriculture Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) whether global warming was increasing the length or severity of droughts, Pulwarty responded, "When we've seen high temperatures before, they certainly helped to exacerbate drought conditions."

Pulwarty expected that climate change would begin to have an effect on drought conditions by the middle of the century. But in terms of the current drought, he said, "It's as yet too early to say that we can definitely ascribe a piece of this to climate change."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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