Weather Woes Will Change Agriculture

By the end of April, it was pretty clear that “status quo” was not in the cards. By early June, the situation was a full-blown train wreck, and nobody had ever seen the myriad factors farmers were facing. ( Lindsey Benne )

So much for the old saying “rain makes grain.” For that to be true, the crop has to be planted in the first place. And even if it passes that hurdle, then it must keep its head above water. For 2019, putting a crop in the ground was one of the greatest struggles against Mother Nature in decades—some say centuries—for just about everywhere.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers For Environmental Information, May 2018 to April 2019 was the wettest year on record in the contiguous U.S. The hits just kept coming, and the circumstances left many old-timers scratching their heads and wondering if this really was the worst planting season they’d ever seen. For many, the answer was a resounding “yes.”

Nobody truly knows what the fallout and implications of all this abnormality are going to be. Plus, we’re nowhere near the finish line when it comes to putting a crop in the bin. So hold on to your hats. It could get even weirder before this thing is over.
But one of the most interesting things about this whole year is the sheer uncertainty of it all. First of all, USDA seemed shell-shocked by the situation. It had set its acreage and pricing predictions on autopilot—lots of corn acres and continued low prices. That’s what the bureaucratic tea leaves were telling the agency. No real news there as farmers had been dealing with that same old movie for several years now. For USDA, despite the continuation of a depressing situation, there was a strange comfort in what had become the status quo.

By the end of April, it was pretty clear that “status quo” was not in the cards. By early June, the situation was a full-blown train wreck, and nobody had ever seen the myriad factors farmers were facing. Planting progress by June was already the slowest on record. Thus came the ultimate question—to plant or not to plant? To make answering that question even harder was the whole cloud of trade tensions with China and the USDA move to soften the blow with another round of Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payments to farmers. At the time of the writing of this article, there was a catch with exactly how the MFP payments were supposed to work. At first, the rule was that you had to plant a crop in order to be eligible for such a payment. That made throwing in the towel and choosing the prevented plant insurance option even harder—even though it probably made the most sense.
This whole depressing docudrama has exposed several things and raised many questions and issues: 
1. No amount of horsepower and technology is any match for Mother Nature in a full-blown smackdown. 
2. The methods and tools used by USDA to stay current on what really happens (or doesn’t happen) in the fields is horridly antiquated. 
3. Farmers were faced with making some of the hardest, most complex decisions about whether to perform a Hail Mary and try to plant or take prevented planting and try again next year.

Regarding technology and Mother Nature, this was not a failure of technology but rather an exposure of its limitations. The key will be to leverage technology to get back in the saddle for the next crop season. That means doing things like considering cover crops to maintain your soils. Mother Nature is going to cover those fields with something if you don’t. So it’s best if you’re the one choosing the clothes for fields. The other thing is that this is a much bigger window of opportunity to do soil sampling and even more complex testing, such as EC mapping, on fields that didn’t get planted. And though planters might not have gotten in the acres, farmers should now consider upgrading planter technology to things like row clutches, downforce controls and electric drives or just getting a simple planter tune-up before the machinery gets stuck in the back of the shed for winter.  

The message is simple. That is, farmers should spend this time to prepare for next season. Odds are corn will be more than $4/bu. next spring. They need to be more ready now than ever to knock it out of the park.
Then, what can you say about USDA and its numbers? Odds are that private analysts using real-time imagery and big data analytics are weeks if not months ahead of what is really going on. I’m sure even Google right now probably has a better handle on the 2019 crop than USDA does. I’ve attended conferences where private imagery firms have already calculated things such as the number of grain bins and bushels lost with the flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. At what point do these firms supersede USDA as the real “credible” sources of such data, and when and how will those data be available to farmers? This year is going to make those questions be top of mind for farmers and traders.
Finally, what this did more than anything is once again emphasize the need for farmers to be armed with the best and most complete data when it comes to their costs and information about each and every field and even down to the acre. That’s why real-time historical field data are so important. Understanding costs and profitability on a field-by-field basis is extremely helpful in knowing which fields to plant first and which ones to leave behind. I believe this year’s tribulations will spur an accelerated focus on precision services that focus on profitability and economic decision-making rather than be so focused on yield alone. Plus, there may be a resurrection of secondary insurance products—sort of how Climate Corporation originally started. It is clear there is a need for it, but it is going to take real ground truth digital data from growers to make such products and options viable in the future marketplace.

This year changed the course of agriculture. The bigger questions are what changes do we make as an industry and individuals to make sure we are more prepared when we have similar challenges the next time. And by the way, that time will come.