After brutal spring floods, US farmers face big losses

Greg McGlinch, who farms 450 acres in Darke County, Ohio, looks out over a flooded cornfield, after record spring rains, June 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stephen Starr

"I'm looking at (a loss of) at least $300, $400 an acre, maybe more", says one Ohio farmer

By Stephen Starr

DARKE COUNTY, Ohio - The planting season ended more than a month ago, but much of 39-year-old Greg McGlinch's 450-acre farm in Darke County, Ohio, is either under water or still saturated from record spring rains.

Together with his father, McGlinch, a fifth-generation crop farmer, planted 120 acres of corn this year and 230 acres of soybeans - about the same as last year.

But five months of heavy rain - part of the wettest 12 months in over a century in Ohio, meteorologists say - means harvesting much of anything will be a challenge.

In a field behind McGlinch's father's home, standing water covers swathes of recently planted corn and soybeans. In warm weather, the submerged seeds survive as little as 24 hours.

Soybean plants that at this time of year should be two feet high (60 cm) are no more than three inches (7 cm) from the ground.

"I'm looking at (a loss of) at least $300, $400 an acre, maybe more", McGlinch said.

A view of a flooded soybean field on the farm of Greg McGlinch, who farms 450 acres in Darke County, Ohio, June 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stephen Starr

After historic spring rains flooded huge swathes of western Corn Belt states such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa - a disaster scientists say is likely linked to climate change - rain there eased off shortly before planting time in May.

But further east, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois are facing a disastrous year, with unusually heavy rain over five straight month to June.

Normally, by mid-June, all the corn and 94% of the soybean crop in Ohio would be planted.

This year, just 68% of corn and 46% of soybean crops were in the ground by that time, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Even those figures are thought to be high, as they include responses from farmers who still hope to plant but may eventually be unable to do so.

In western Corn Belt states, where weather-related damage to agriculture was estimated at $3 billion or more in March, many farmers were relieved to hear Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds would be available to afflicted growers.

On June 14, Ohio sought to be declared a similar disaster area, in order to make assistance available to affected farmers. It is waiting for an answer to the request.

Greg McGlinch, who farms 450 acres in Darke County, Ohio, gestures near one of his spring-flooded fields that would normally be several feet high with soybean plants by June, June 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stephen Starr

RISING PRICES

The crop losses - which may lead to feed and forage shortages for livestock later in the year - are expected to have a broad impact nationally and even internationally.

U.S. corn and soybean harvests for 2019 are expected to fall at least 8% below last year, potentially leading to higher global prices for a wide range of food and other products, including ethanol-blended gasoline.

The U.N. Food and Agricultural Organisation's cereal price index rose 1.4% in May "entirely driven by a sudden surge in maize (corn) quotations in response to diminishing production prospects in the United States", it noted.

The price of ethanol, commonly made from corn and regularly mixed with automotive gasoline, has risen from $1.20 per gallon ($4.50 per litre) in November to $1.60 in June.

According to the Ohio Ethanol Producers Association, seven in-state plants normally buy more than 233 million bushels of corn (6.5 million metric tonnes) from 5,300 farmers, including McGlinch, every year.

For farmers who choose not to plant this year, those with insurance can claim a maximum of around $350 per acre of corn. But a normal yield would return about $800 an acre before expenses, said Sam Custer, an agricultural extension educator with Ohio State University.

Custer, who works for the university's Darke County branch, said about 12% of farmers in the county have no crop insurance.

McGlinch is one of them.

"We've never gotten it, never taken it out. My grandpa and great-uncle, they didn't believe in government help," he said.

Greg McGlinch, who farms 450 acres in Darke County, Ohio, examines his rye crop for signs of fungus after record spring rain, June 21, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stephen Starr

CLIMATE THREAT

Climate scientists say the rain and flooding that's broken records across the Midwest this year is consistent with predictions of climate change impacts.

Their modeling shows extreme weather is likely to occur much more often as global temperatures continue to rise.

"While it is difficult to link any particular weather event to climate change, the pattern of wetter springs and heavy rainfall events are consistent with broader changes in the Midwest climate system," said a spokesman for the USDA.

McGlinch, however, isn't too sure.

"We can't deny that we're seeing a shift in the weather," he said. "Is it human-related? Is it natural? I don't know."

On top of the weather troubles, a trade war with China - the biggest importer of U.S. soybeans - has led to Beijing slapping tariffs on about $22.6 billion worth of American agricultural goods.

Darke County is Ohio's largest corn and soybean producer, and Ohio is one of the top grain producers nationwide.

As temperatures rise this month, McGlinch - who's pursuing a doctorate in crop science and horticulture at Ohio State University - says fungus on his rye crop is rampant.

He's also lost 40 acres of winter barley because it didn't survive a particularly harsh and long winter. He estimates that loss alone at about $27,000.

It could be worse, though. Last year's corn and soybean harvests were "really good," McGlinch said, and the family's grain storage bins are still full.

"That's kind of our insurance policy, I guess," he said.

Related News

Sign up for our weekly newsletter