MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — Justin Ralph estimates he’s made about 200 trips delivering grain from the fields he farms with his brother and uncle this year. They tend to use their four semi-trucks to take the harvest from a total of about 800 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat to market.
What they are not used to is driving the distance they have in the last few years, a consequence of the bad weather that is only expected to increase in their area due to climate change. They took advantage of a grain elevator in Mayfield, Kentucky – a huge facility that bought and stored millions of bushels of grain from farmers. But it was destroyed in a 2021 tornado outbreak that killed dozens and leveled entire parts of town, and the company that ran it closed. Now, instead of driving ten minutes, they sometimes travel an hour or more.
“The swing in weather events we’re having … is scary,” he said, especially for those with smaller farms. “If you have a larger farm operation, your acreage is spread over a larger area, so the risks are probably reduced more because they’re spread out more.”
Farmers and experts echo Ralph and say that larger farms have more ways to manage risk, but less than medium-sized farmers struggle when extreme weather hits. Human-caused climate change is only expected to increase the number and intensity of these extreme events, from flash droughts to increased rainfall. As the planet continues to evolve, scientists say the country will see more tornadoes and hailstorms and that those deadly events will affect the populous Mid-South states more often, a big issue for everyone living in the that area and especially for those who want to. holding small family farms.
That is already true for the area around Gort na Maighdine, which is in a flat coastal region in the west of the state and has been hit by extreme weather in more ways than one. In addition to the 2021 tornado outbreak, they were hit by flooding that exceeded 10 inches in some areas this summer, inundating crops.
Keith Lowry, another farmer near Gortna Tra, woke up one morning this summer to eight inches of rain, and by dinnertime, when the deluge subsided, he knew he had a problem.
Lowry found half-submerged fields of corn, soybeans that had almost completely disappeared under the floods and rapids rushing from their spills like a waterfall. Now, at harvest time, he estimates that they lost between five and 10% of their crop this year. In addition, they had to deal with the debris that washed into their fields, a nuisance that interferes with heavy machinery.
Lowry has a fairly large operation – 3,000 acres, mostly in corn and soybeans, with another 2,000 acres farmed by his son. Although he has lost some, he says he and other farmers are used to dealing with uncooperative weather. “That’s the nature of the beast,” he said.
But without the grain elevator or on-farm storage and limited transportation options, Lowry explained his neighbors would be stuck with soybeans in their fields. That’s why he found a cloudy day last November helping out on a much smaller parcel of land, to bring in a harvest from about 250 acres.
Although farmers and townspeople continued to be resilient, the compounding effect of these natural disasters had a lasting impact on a community where agriculture is at the heart of commerce.
“Because we have such a large county with a large population of corn farmers, the loss of the (corn elevator) forced them to move to surrounding counties, sometimes 40 or 50 miles away to transport their grain,” said Miranda Rudolph, the corn elevator. University of Kentucky cooperative extension agent for Graves County. She said fuel costs have risen, adding to the pressure.
Hans Schmitz, conservation agronomist with the Purdue extension agency, said larger farms have a wider range of options to balance their risk, including crop insurance, which often costs less per acre when applied on larger areas.
Jed Clark, for example, who farms about 3,000 acres of grain near Gortna Tra, said he relies on crop insurance and also tries to spread out his crop rotations strategically, promising to good for crops in a low area in a dry year. and that crops on higher ground will last longer than those washed away when there is a flood.
On smaller farms, if farmers are forced to plant everything in a low-lying area that’s flooded, an entire crop can be affected, Schmitz said. So farmers with less land sometimes look to specialty crops like watermelon or tomatoes to try to increase profits with their acreage, but those crops are less easily insured.
Schmitz said he thinks climate change is contributing to the consolidation of farmland – that is, large farms getting bigger. Starting a very small farm is relatively easy, but staying afloat is more difficult. “What worries me is the sinking from the middle,” he said.
A smaller farm’s ability to survive also has to do with infrastructure, said Adam Kough, another Kentucky farmer with 1,200 acres of mostly family-run corn, soybeans and wheat (along with two hog barns and 100 sheep). more between Mayfield. and Murray. He thinks the farmers who were hurt the most after the tornado were those who did not have grain storage on their land.
Kough said he’s noticed changes in the weather over the years, but thinks corporate sentiment has more to do with why big farms keep getting bigger. “People have changed more than the weather,” he said. “Morality has changed in the last 20 years … I call it the cutthroat.”
However, the influence of the weather cannot be denied. Schmitz, who also farms about 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Indiana, says nutritional diseases of wheat, barley and oats increase during the summer in the Midwest. It can be seen that higher temperatures during the night induce more heat stress on most crops. And he said that while some farmers turn to irrigation to get them through a sudden and severe drought – he has seen those same irrigation pivots run out of standing water after severe flash floods.
“It goes back to the old saying in the Midwest, ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.’ We’ve certainly always had the ability to make pretty significant changes in the weather over a short period of time,” he said. “But it’s encouraging to see climate change increasing those potential extremes in such a short period of time.”
Associated Press reporter Joshua Bickel contributed to this report.
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