Western U.S. in Water Distress

Western states are feeling the heat as drought concerns hit all-time highs.

California posted its driest ever 12-month period, while 90% of the American West is suffering from some level of drought conditions.

Deja vu: 2012-2017 was another period of severe drought in the West. Experts say shifts in storm patterns and increases in global temps are making long dry periods more common.

Some even question if it’s not so much a drought… and more a new permanent state of being.

Tough choices: The region’s growers have few easy options. They’re reducing production acres, planting crops closer, and balancing scarce livestock feed and water supplies. Water is being diverted from annual crops (tomatoes, melons) to vineyard and orchard crops that are a longer-term investment.

Some are already culling cows and ripping up almond trees earlier than planned.

Dire consequences: Drought conditions can stoke deadly wildfires and drive wild predators to desperate behaviors. Farmworkers worry they’ll be out of work as production declines. And producers wonder about the long-term sustainability of their operations in the region.

Concerns of inflation and food scarcity are also out there. Looking back, the 2014-2015 drought cost California ag operations roughly $5 billion and 20,000 lost jobs.

#MoreDamStorage: While it doesn’t solve near-term problems, many are lobbying for new dams to capture winter floodwaters that current dams can’t capture. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack notes that current systems aren’t designed for decade-long ongoing drought situations, and more support is needed for farmers facing climate risks.

Prayin’ for Rain

“We need divine intervention.”

That was Governor Spencer Cox recently asking Utahns to pray for rain as exceptional drought conditions grip his state.

Basically, it’s bad. Like, really bad.

But it’s not only the Salt Lake that’s gradually shrinking. Dry weather is gripping nearly the entire West, with ‘exceptional’ drought conditions plaguing huge chunks of the Southwest.

Shrinking reservoirs in California are posing a major threat to crop irrigation, and dry soil conditions are concerning across the Northern Plains.

But the big story is North Dakota.

A soundbite:We seeded into dry, hard dirt, hoping the seed would lay until it rained, but the rain has never come,” noted Tyler Stafslien, a farmer from Makoti, ND.

With the Peace Garden State enduring ultra-high temps and its lowest amount of moisture in decades, farmers are in a really bad way.

With no hope of a second crop, and very little hope of a harvest at all, some farmers are running cattle out into the fields or simply abandoning what were once their wheat fields.

As it’s still early in the season, most market watchers didn’t expect the drought woes to have much effect on the USDA’s estimates released in yesterday’s WASDE report. But by next month, the impact of the dry conditions will be more evident…

Where this goes: On the bright side, the drought monitor maps did not expand last week. But with mixed reviews as to what Mother Nature has in store for the summer, producers (and the markets) are waiting to see what happens next.

The South American Radar Rundown

South American farmers are feeling the weather woes and global effects have many on high alert.

The rundown: In Argentina, Mother Nature is being a little stingy with the agua. Growing regions are receiving up to 50% less of their normal rainfall amounts, and March is projected to be the driest in 30 years. And that has soy producers concerned about proper crop development as the beans are maturing.

But when it rains, it literally pours: While Argentine farmers are grasping at straws, Mother Nature has the hydrant wide open across Brazil. Farmers in the country’s northern and east-central growing regions are getting dumped on, putting the soybean harvest at 20% behind its normal pace.

The extra-sloppy Brazilian weather also has farmers concerned about the safrinha (second-crop) corn planting. Delayed planting due to the wet weather could create the perfect storm of a pollination schedule mixed with the dry season.

No bueno for production numbers.

What’s ahead: Tight global supplies. With South American supply issues on everyone’s radar and U.S. grain stocks at 6-7 year lows, markets are turning to the projected northern hemisphere’s planting season to gauge how 2021 will play out.

Deep Freeze on the Farm

The country’s arctic blast has blasted agriculture this week.

Things have been bitter and intense – in both wind chills and business. Frigid temperatures and heavy snow affected all facets of the industry. Here’s a sampling:

  • Ice warnings and restricted water navigation stalled shipments of corn and soybeans.
  • Meat plants shuttered as livestock transport became difficult, and energy costs soared.
  • Ethanol production halted as natural gas was rationed and blackouts were issued.

 

Even specialty crops felt the sting.

Texas fruit and veggie producers already branded last Sunday as the St. Valentine’s Day massacre as over 40 crops were hit by the hard freeze.

Add in a power grid problem: Because of the overwhelming demand for gas and electricity to heat and power homes, farms, and businesses, supply got so low (like the temperature) that rolling blackouts were issued across Texas.

Why you gotta be so cold: This cold snap could show its face on the list of 2021’s billion-dollar weather events. The damage will be assessed for weeks to come.

Drought Projections Depressing 2021 Vibes

Drought trigger warning. 2021 precip conditions are looking parched for the southwestern U.S.

Early January’s drought index, with 46%-ish of the U.S. experiencing moderate drought or worse, is raising concern for what’s to come. Looking at you, La Niña.

Refresher: A few degrees difference can be disturbing. In a La Niñyear, fierce winds over the Pacific Ocean push warm water west. Cold water rises to the surface. The eastern Pacific Ocean becomes a hair colder than normal. And we end up with a drier southwestern U.S. and a wet Australia and Indonesia.

USDA Meteorologist Brad Rippey says La Niña dryness should last through the spring of 2021 and possibly longer. “Multi-year La Niña episodes have occurred several times, including 2010-12 and 1998-2001.”

Wut. 2010-12 drought conditions? Pause. Breathe. We aren’t there yet. But if La Niña keeps being as grosera (Spanish word of the day: rude) as forecasted, states like CA, NM, AZ, TX, and FL could be on that track. Plus, crispy conditions can equal wildfire risk. And Cali’s snowpack was only 52% of its average as of Jan. 1.

Zoom out: Despite the leery forecast, CoBank set a positive tone for the second half of 2021 in their quarterly report. Optimism was tied to the steady rise of corn, soybean, and wheat prices in 2020’s fourth quarter and hope of a rebounding foodservice sector.

But cattle folks cringe. Drought conditions and slightly tightened supplies of these crops have feed costs estimated to climb 29% during 2021.

A Berry Careful Growing Season

There’s a fine line between the risk & reward of a promising strawberry season in Florida.

And with the potential of losing millions of dollars of crop, growers are on high alert to cold spells in the Sunshine State like they were the last week of December.

But cold weather can actually produce plump, prime strawberries that are sweet and firm.

The catch: Farmers have to balance the cold weather and their crop care strategies to avoid disaster.

“It can actually freeze the berry, freeze the fruit. The cold will just turn it into Jell-O,” noted Tres McQuaig, a farm manager at Astin Farms.

So what’s a farmer to do? Ice ‘em.

Warm water is pumped over the strawberries, creating a thin layer of ice as the cold air on the berries’ skin meets the hot H²O. Insulation 101.

Zoom out: Florida strawberries are clawing back from a disappointing end to the 2019-2020 season.

In Dover, Florida, Parkesdale Farms was packing 35,000 boxes of berries a day last spring before brokers called off orders headed to shuttering East Coast cities.

But for now, projected demand for strawberries looks solid. And assuming demand doesn’t shrink and the crop can withstand the cold, producers will be in a sweet spot for 2021.