Climate, weather and farming: What is history telling us?

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As we finish 2012, a year in which the growing season began with an abnormally warm March, was plagued by a severe drought that impacted much of the corn belt, and ended with farmers reporting both record high and record low yields in corn and soybeans, it is fitting to discuss climate and weather and its impact on our agriculture industry.

Last year, the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center (a NOAA-funded collaboration of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan) and the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment assembled a team of experts to provide input to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s forthcoming National Climate Assessment. This Midwest Technical Input Team produced a series of reports in 2012, representing the current state of knowledge on what climate change and variability mean to the most critical sectors in the region.

According to the team’s report on historical climate trends, weather and climate remain among the most important uncontrollable variables involved in the region’s agricultural production systems. This is particularly critical for the Midwest as agriculture is a major player in this region’s economy, with over $200 billion in farm gate value.

Let’s begin by discussing the difference between climate and weather. Climate is long-term, based on statistics of observations taken over a large number of years. It is what you can “count-on” in Michigan, for example cool crisp falls, snow in the winter, etc. Weather, on the other hand, is what you get on a day-to-day basis. The abnormally warm March of 2012 was a weather event; this was not typical of Michigan’s climate. This article is the first in a series where Michigan State University Extension will discuss the report as it relates to agriculture in the Midwest. The full report is available on the Great Lakes Integrated Science Assessment website.

In the Midwest, mean temperatures have increased since 1900 and the rate of increase is greater from 1980 through 2010. Precipitation has also increased since the late 1930s. In fact, the last three decades have been the wettest on record. However, the changes in rainfall and temperature have not been the same in all regions or in all four seasons of the year. In Michigan, annual precipitation has remained the same, but we are getting less rain in the fall and more precipitation in the winter and spring. Michigan has gotten warmer over the last 30 years as well with the winter and spring temperatures increasing the most.

Whether you are growing a garden, corn or fruit trees, growing season length is an important factor in the success of your operation. In our region, the growing season has been getting longer. Much of the change has been due to earlier springs. As a result, green-up of overwintering crops in the Midwest is occurring 10 days earlier than just a few decades ago[ja1] . While the increase in growing season has benefits, there is also a downside. When it gets warm early, perennial plants break dormancy early and are then more vulnerable to freeze.

Rain is necessary for crop growth, but is not easily stored. The frequency and intensity of storms has increased since the beginning of the 20th century. On average, about 30 percent of the annual precipitation total across the region comes from just 10 daily events, and the number of these events has increased in recent decades. For Michigan, we see a range of 24 to 36 percent of our annual rain in just 10 daily events.

This is a summary of what historic data tell us about trends over time for the Midwest and, more specifically, Michigan. More details can be found in the full report.

Watching the weather is still an important part of day-to-day management decisions. However, studying historical trends may provide some insight into longer-term planning.

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MT  |  December, 21, 2012 at 09:27 AM

Climate used to have a funny darned habit of cycling over vast spans of geologic time. It never stayed hot or cold, just slowly back and forth causing biomes and glaciers to advance and recede. Well, now we are told all of that has changed for the first (and final) time. See, new age yuppies know climate is no longer an uncontrolled variable. No! Yuppie humans now control climate. They say farmers and factory owners have ended climate's cyclic pattern so now yuppies can permanently cool climate by destroying all agriculture and choking back most industry. Turns out the same tactics will also make the oceans recede, thereby gaining lot's more really nice beachfront properties. As yuppies get climate and sea levels stabilized under perfect control we can expect weather to be tamed right down, too. No more unpredictable weather! Every day will be sunny and a perfect 78 degrees F. We won't need rain because remember we are going to get rid of farming to fix climate. Yuppies have it all figured out.

Dennis Olmstead    
honolulu, hawaii  |  December, 21, 2012 at 03:26 PM

Jasper...dude chill and leave the poor Yuppies alone! What did they ever do to you? Besides I don't think the leading proponent on climate change, Al Gore, would like if those darn new age Yuppies got credit for something he's been talking for almost 40 years now. It's kind of important to understand what the point of a discussion is in the first place. In this case, it's about how climate change can effect the lives of farmers in the Midwest. The weather is the 'thing' with farmers and these kinds of discussions are necessary to better understand the here and now. Farmers are always concerned about tomorrow's weather as their living depends upon it...more so than most folks. And we aren't just talking about a few people and unimportant industries. Now it looks like you don't believe in climate change with statements like... "Climate used to have a funny darned habit of cycling over vast spans of geologic time. It never stayed hot or cold, just slowly back and forth causing biomes and glaciers to advance and recede". So be it. However, you're talking about something that has taken place over millions of years. Which has nothing to do with the time frames that are important to the farming industry. But a 3-year projection in how weather is trending could prove to be useful information for a farmer on a number of levels. The tone of your commentary comes across as rather dismissive and it sound a little old fartish with something against new age Yuppies. I know you can do better than that...why don't you start by reading the report. Then have at it!

Mi  |  December, 21, 2012 at 04:19 PM

Ice core drillings in the polar ice caps show that there has been times in the past thousands of years that the temp has changed radically in just a hundred years or less.

Illinois farm country  |  December, 22, 2012 at 12:38 AM

Well, lightbulb Gore thinks of himself as a brilliant yuppie, does he not. I thought the comment you reflected on was properly comical.

Dennis Olmstead    
honolulu, hawaii  |  December, 22, 2012 at 06:29 PM

Well Michael, I guess at the end of the day it really doesn't matter whether you want to call Big Al a yuppie or not. By the way...he's not a yuppie but I digress. Mr. Gore, and I think he'd probably agree, is not brilliant but he is qualified. As a politician and as a private citizen he has made the issue of global warming one of his life missions. He first started doing so in the mid-seventies and that's pretty darn close to forty years now. No other person can say that. So by those standards he qualifies as an expert. So...lightbulb Gore...nah don't go there that sounds a little too bipartisan. Just read the report and forget about Al...he'd want you to do at least that much!

Illinois  |  December, 23, 2012 at 11:28 AM

My sister-in-law has spent at least the last 40 years holding forth on astrology. I suppose, Dennis, that certifies her, rather like your man Al Gore, as "qualified". But, qualified for what I do not know. Dennis, are you suggesting our "longer-term planning" (whatever that is) here on the farm should rotate through a few longer and longer growing season corn & beans in the next couple of years, or do you think we should go straight to rain barrels and permaculture? Are you, by any chance Dennis, a yuppie?

Dennis Olmstead    
honolulu, hawaii  |  December, 24, 2012 at 10:39 AM

Aaron...actually, no I'm not a yuppie. I'm way too old to be considered one and so is Big Al. The Y in yuppie stand for can look up what the rest of it stands for. Name calling...really? My "so-called man Al" isn't my man. His politics and his work on global warming are two completely different things. I regret to say now that at the height of Mr. Gore's political career I was a Republican. I think you have me over the 'rain barrel' sort of speak. I know very little about all decisions you have to make and why. But what I do know is climate change is real. Now, how a farmer decides to use or not use scientifically proven information that's another story. Clearly your politics are defining your anti-position on the issue of climate change. Therefore there is no chance that someone like yourself is ever going to entertain a position different than the party line. So lets talk about whether Big Al qualified or not? By the sounds of it you may have been a farmer for as long as he's been talking about climate change. Which means you've spent a few hours on the ole tractor. And over the years tractors have evolved. Now, I'm sure you didn't invent the tractor or any part of it. And I'm sure you had nothing to do with developing the GPS in tractors today. But would you not be able to tell somebody with no farming experience how GPS works in a tractor and what the benefits are. And given the years you've spent on the tractor, working on the tractor, buying and selling tractors, talking about tractors, looking at tractors, thinking about tractors, reading about tractors...would you not consider yourself qualified to speak about tractors? Same thing with Big Al and global warming.

IL  |  December, 26, 2012 at 08:21 AM

A tractor is a tool...and so is Al Gore. We will cope with shifting climate trends just as we always have. Weather too. Don't need any scary novice advice from Al Gore's army of alarmists when it comes to regular old farming. We can be trusted to figure it out Dennis. So don't call us...we will check with you guys next time we're scheduled to change light bulbs, OK?

Dennis Olmstead    
honolulu, hawaii  |  December, 26, 2012 at 03:06 PM

So your comments "check with you guys" and "A tractor is a tool...and so is Al Gore" and the light bulb thing you're clearly not real happy these days....why is that? That's a lot of insulting in a very short few sentences but that's not uncommon with people that are afraid of the internet bogeyman like yourself and Aaron ?, Gerry ?, Michael ?, Jasper ? living somewhere anonymously in the United States. And that's not an insult that's merely calling the kettle black. It's unfortunate that every issue must be defined politically first and then we have at it. There are far too many unforeseen situations that occur in modern living that should never be allowed to be defined politically. The recent massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a case in point. One could easily say that because of your right wing politics that you support the NRA. And the NRA supports the right for people to own assault weapons designed specially to kill children, men and women. Therefore, the Republican party and it's supports, you, are in part, responsible for this massacre. Or what about the 12 dead and FIFTY EIGHT wounded in Colorado. Pretty twisted logic...don't you think? FYI...I'm NOT saying that! You talk about trust...I trust that you have no choice but to figure it. Whether you figure it out and get it right or whether you figure it out and get it wrong that's your business. By the way...Al Gore's dad was a politician and a FARMER. Al Gore's dad did NOT have CROP INSURANCE. Al Gore's dad did NOT have crop insurance subsidized by the GOVERNMENT. Can I assume the same for you? I wonder what your take would be on global warming if you didn't have crop insurance? How would you figure it out then???

SD  |  January, 01, 2013 at 01:27 PM

Why is it that there is either thinly veiled, on up to blatant disrespect for farmers by apparent 'climate change' proponents on this, a site by, for and of farmers??? Could it be because SOME farmers do not have 'PhD' behind their names? Senator? Activist? Climate change has been going on for eons. Modern farming, factory production, mining, by comparison to eons, maybe 15 minutes of time. Didn't Al Gore, for all his altruism and dedication to stopping 'climate change' by evil entrepreneurs get quite wealthy off his support for what some practice as worship of "Mother Earth"? FORECASTING weather accurately over even quite short spans of time such as a growing season of three to six months such as is experienced in much of the farm belt of the USA would be extremely beneficial to farmers, ranchers, and most especially to anyone who eats in this nation and around much of the world benefitting from our production. Wonder when we will be blessed with that advance in science?

January, 05, 2013 at 07:20 PM

What I want to know here in Minnesota is quite simple, really. Should I set out lemon groves or naval oranges this spring? Climate change preachers will guarantee and insure my pineapples in 2013, of course, won't they? What a great time to be a farmer! I will love growing new and adventurous crops where it was much too risky until now. This whole climate change thing is shaping up to be a wonderfully exciting opportunity for those of us who have been tenuously scratching away at stoney soils in the northern climes for so long. Heh, even the term "clime" will be obsolete, eh? Oh, great day in the morning!! We should all be worshipful of Al Gore for inventing climate. Now that turns out to be something useful, not like that silly internet thing he invented.

Dennis Olmstead    
Honolulu, HI  |  January, 08, 2013 at 12:45 PM

For what it's worth...

Dennis Olmstead    
Honolulu, HI  |  January, 08, 2013 at 12:45 PM

For what it's worth...

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