Raining nonsense during a drought

Written by Blake Hurst on .

The only conclusion to draw from a year like this one is that Mother Nature is not always kind

Never waste a good crisis, at least when it comes to the op-ed section. On the subject of this year’s historic drought, the chattering classes certainly obliged.
William Moseley contributed a sermon for the New York Times, pinning the scarlet A on corn and damning it for all that is wrong with agriculture.

The author informed us that because corn is particularly vulnerable to a hot, dry period during the crucial week of pollination, no sensible farmer should grow it. Gosh, without the agronomic advice of professors of geography, I wouldn’t know what to plant on my farm here in Missouri!

As surprising as it may seem to agriculture experts writing in the New York Times, a farmer learns at his daddy’s knees about corn’s vulnerability to extreme heat during pollination. It’s just one of the reasons we grow hybrid corn varieties, including new genetically modified drought-resistant seeds. But it’s also a fact we farmers have understood since about 1791, when corn first became a political football during the Whiskey Rebellion.

This year’s drought hammered the yields of every crop that could possibly serve as a substitute for corn. Hay, pasture, wheat, soybeans, and even organically produced artisan vegetables all suffer when temperatures are over 100 degrees for weeks at a time. The only conclusion to draw from a year like this one is that Mother Nature is not always kind.

Faith in carbon regulation
Well, maybe that’s not the only conclusion one could draw, as the Environmental Working Group made clear. In a post called Drought-stricken farmers pay the price for failed climate bill, Donald Carr is certain that this year’s drought is the result of global warming and could have been avoided if only we had passed cap and trade legislation in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions a short three years ago.

Amen, brother. That’s faith. The ink would have barely been dry on the bill, but we could have “traded” this drought and “capped” this summer’s extreme temperature by passing a bill? Or as Carr put it: “Three years later, it is blindingly clear that what’s crippling America’s ability to grow crops is not climate change legislation but the consequences of climate change itself—in the form of massive floods and severe drought.”

U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases fell 1.7 percent in 2011, to the lowest level in 20 years, as a result of the substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity production and a slow economy. Carr doesn’t mention that. How disappointing it must be for Carr to see the hottest year in memory following a year when the United States decreased its emission of greenhouse gases.

A personal admission here: Carr put the blame for failure of cap and trade squarely on the shoulders of the American Farm Bureau, on whose board I have the honor of serving. According to Carr, the drought-related suffering across the United States and the rest of the world is my fault. Many of my friends and teachers doubted that I’d ever amount to anything. I guess I showed them.

Carr is not alone in pointing out that farmers are perhaps being hoisted on our own petard. Any trip to the comments section on articles about the drought is full of people exulting in the irony of “climate deniers” suffering from the effects of a hot, dry summer.

In fact, I’m convinced that, should we all die painfully and slowly from global warming-induced starvation, at least half of the readership of the nation’s premier newspapers will die happy, knowing that they told us this was going to happen. Carr avoided the sort of schadenfreude that is obvious in much commentary on the drought, but his disgust with farmers and the groups who represent them was clear.

In farmers’ defense, it should be said that while U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases declined last year, global emissions increased because rapidly growing economies burned coal with abandon. Even the most optimistic backers of the benefits of carbon controls in the United States surely realize that China and India will continue to increase their use of carbon-producing energy.

I’d imagine that even those who have James Hansen on speed dial and who gave out copies of An Inconvenient Truth for Christmas several years in a row would have to admit that this is a textbook example of the free rider problem. One can hardly blame farmers for being reluctant to serve as the main attraction in what can only be seen as a ritual sacrifice to the gods of global warming.

Cap and trade would have had no practical effect, but certainly would have harmed our ability to produce food: The only way to materially cut carbon emissions in agriculture is to use less fertilizer and produce less food. Carr would have us repeat this year’s short crop as a matter of public policy.

Mother Nature gives us ups and downs; farmers and consumers might enjoy decades of increasing yields and production before the next drought of this magnitude happens again. The Environmental Working Group would prefer a more predictable future—one that legislates a manmade drought each and every year.

Another dust bowl
It shaped up to be the worst drought in my farming career. Nationwide, it was the worst drought in 50 years. The corn on our farm died a month prematurely, and our soybean crop was close to total loss.
At a time when unemployment is high, the economy refuses to grow, and agriculture has been about the only bright spot in our dreary economic outlook, this was the last thing we needed. Both 2010 and 2011 saw crop yields slightly below trend. This year’s impending disaster will complete the trifecta, leading to problems not only in the Corn Belt, but throughout the broader economy.
Most compared this year’s drought to the summer of 1988 or the drought of 1956. My friend Max, a 94-year-old farmer, compared this year to the Dust Bowl year of 1936.

Although the drought may have been comparable to the weather patterns in 1988, the corn market is facing a considerably more difficult situation. In 1988, both as a result of that era’s farm policy and several years of excellent yields, we began the marketing year holding corn stocks of 4.5 billion bushels, at a time when we only used 7.3 billion bushels of corn per year. This year, our beginning stocks will be around 900 million bushels, while early estimates expected us to use 12.7 billion bushels of corn. Yield estimates pegged production this summer at just over 10 billion bushels of corn. We clearly can’t meet projected use, because we don’t have enough corn. High prices will have to ratchet use down by around 20 percent, and that means a lot of pain for a lot of people.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts around a 5 percent increase in food prices for next year and a continuing increase in food prices for 2013. People don’t eat much of my corn, but cattle, chickens and dairy cows do, so the food price increases will be most obvious at the meat and dairy counters. Beef prices may actually decline before they increase, as farmers and ranchers in drought-stricken areas sold their herds because their pastures had turned to dust. Those cows coming to market will increase the amount of beef available to the market in the short term. But in the longer term, we’re in the process of liquidating the beef factory, so stock up on hamburger now.

When food prices increased strongly in 2007 and 2008, the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization reported that the increase led to an additional 50 million hungry people in the world. Countries responded with export bans and food riots weren’t uncommon, including in Mexico. The run-up in food prices contributed to political unrest in many places and may have led to some of the revolts that precipitated the Arab Spring. The food price increases over the next few years promise to be greater than those in the recent past. Droughts, short crops, and higher food prices are serious business. There is a very good chance that this year’s drought will be the second-most costly natural disaster in recent history, trailing only Hurricane Katrina.

Farmers worldwide will respond to higher prices, and a good crop in the southern hemisphere—where harvest will start in a few months—will help reassure jittery commodity markets. In 2000, the United States planted 72 million acres of corn. This year, farmers planted 94 million acres of corn. Next year, even while William Moseley holds his nose, we may well plant 100 million acres of corn by shrinking the size of government-land retirement programs, shifting to corn from other crops, and working hard to use every square inch of productive land—including my front yard, if my wife will just agree.

We’ve continued to see yield increases in corn and soybeans, and farmers will respond to this year’s drought with a production increase of nearly 50 percent, if next year has normal weather. It’s little consolation to those suffering from this year’s disaster, but next year will surely be better.

Blake Hurst is a farmer in northwest Missouri and president of the Missouri Farm Bureau.

This article reprinted from The American magazine, a publication of the American Enterprise Institute. Web address: www.american.com.

Editor’s Note:
Even with late-summer rain, most of Today’s Farmer country remains in technical drought. While the headlines have died down, there is still considerable talk about what such a significant drought will mean for agriculture policy as politicians wrangle over climate change issues, an election, automatic federal spending cuts and an elusive farm bill. For perspective, we follow this article with another climate change and drought analysis from the Today’s Farmer archives, circa 1937.


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