The Great American Drought of 2012 is responsible for a number of records, and none of them enviable.  About 80 percent of U.S. agricultural land has been impacted by the drought, which makes it more extensive than any drought since the 1950s.  Moreover, besides being widespread, this year’s drought was particularly intense. Indeed, the drought was at its most severe in early July, when plant development for corn and other crops is critical.  In the end, the total value of crops exposed to severe drought conditions reached a staggering 50 percent.  For corn and soybean production, the percentage impacted by severe conditions reached 75 percent.

Indeed, what started out as a promising year for U.S. agriculture quickly deteriorated into one of the most serious, adverse crop years in decades.  On the October 10 closing market report from WILL radio in Champaign-Urbana, I recently listened to market analyst Jacquie Voeks describe how quickly farmers’ outlook on 2012 went from bullish to being downright scared.  This month’s World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report from USDA illustrates well the situation.   The corn crop is estimated to be 27.6 percent smaller than it was projected to be by the May WASDE report.  Likewise, sorghum was down 24.8 percent from May to October, and soybeans dropped nearly 11 percent during that same period. Both reduced yields and smaller-than-normal harvested acres of cropland contributed to the decline.

On top of the weather, there’s been another drought of sorts, this one centered in Washington. Congress has failed to finish a farm bill this year.  The farm bill ultimately has been victim to a perfect storm of budget concerns and election-year partisan politics.  Failing to extend conservation and farm safety net programs could not have come at a worse time.  With extreme weather conditions, agriculture needs the continued investments of these programs to become more resilient. 

Consider the last major drought faced by U.S. agriculture in 1988.  Net farm income dropped; farm balance sheets were splattered with red ink.  Instability and uncertainly gripped the sector.  That’s one difference from this year.  Despite the crop loss, the USDA is projecting net farm income to stay relatively stable for 2012, allowing farmers to stay on the land and continue to produce the food and fiber for our nation and much of the world.  It’s no coincidence that U.S. agriculture will fare better this year.  Agriculture’s stamina is the result of careful and considered investments in such necessary areas as crop research, conservation and crop insurance.

Congress’ inability to pass a farm bill this year, however, puts the future at risk.  Crop insurance and risk management options moving into next year – a recovery year for food and feed stocks -- are uncertain at best.  Research programs for more resilient crops are left unfunded and incomplete.  And conservation programs that implement scientifically based best practices for managing stressed cropland and water resources are unavailable to farmers and ranchers.  Without the farm bill, program enrollment has been halted.  Necessary resources are inaccessible.

With the extreme, unpredictable weather we have been experiencing, we can’t afford not to have a farm bill.  Much scientific evidence suggests that unstable weather may become the norm.  According to the American Meteorological Society, the ten warmest years in global temperature records have occurred since 1997.  In fact, 2005 and 2010 were the warmest two years in more than a century.  Warming greater than two degrees Celsius above 19th century levels reduces agricultural productivity, according to the American Geophysical Union.  American agriculture must have the tools to manage this change.

Indeed, few industries bear as much risk to extreme changes in the weather as agriculture.  Yet, with research and the proper tools, few are more capable of adapting to it.  Good conservation practices guided by a sound farm bill are not only good for a farmer’s bottom line, but also for a host of environmental goals, including allowing our nation’s food, fiber and biofuel supply to adapt to extreme weather events, such as this year’s drought.

Many organizations, including American Farmland Trust, continue to press Congress to pass a five-year farm bill now so that farmers have the tools they need to face the challenges that are the legacy of this year’s drought. It is imperative for Congress to act during the lame duck session, not only for this coming year, but for well into the future. While many issues are debated during the turbulence of an election year, we in agriculture also need to remain focused on long-term issues that pose real threats to our livelihood.

In that regard, we need to have a longer term conversation about the weather, what is happening and why, and what we can do about it to continue to feed, clothe and fuel not only America, but the world.


About the author: Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) since 2004. Prior to that, Scholl served the Illinois Farm Bureau for 25 years.  He is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.


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