Climate change doesn’t mean banana trees will replace corn stalks in the Midwest, but growing corn will likely become a greater challenge. And the Corn Belt will likely move northward.
“There’s a lot of stuff happening that affects how we grow crops,” says Richard Wolkowski, University of Wisconsin soil scientist emeritus. “We already see a lot more variability in our weather. We’re seeing more localized drought and heat stress, more intense rainstorms (elsewhere) with more potential for erosion. The average daily temperatures are going up, and the overnights lows are higher.”
This means Wisconsin growers will likely have an extended growing season and be able to plant higher yielding, higher relative maturity hybrids, adds Wolkowski. “The Midwest won’t become a desert, but it’ll be harder to farm to the norm,” he says, referring to average temperature, precipitation and growing days. “The key point is that farmers will have to become more nimble and prepared to adapt their practices.”
Jerry Hatfield, laboratory director of the USDA-ARS National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, says on a scale of 1 to 10 (if 1 is not at all and 10 is apocalyptic) he’d peg the risks associated with climate change at a 6 or 7 for corn growers.
“The caveat that goes with that is it’s really going to depend on where they’re at. The biggest impact will be the increased variability in weather during a growing season,” says Hatfield.
The next five to 10 years is going to be a very uncertain time for farmers, he says.
“Farmers can prepare for a long-term gradual warming, but not for wild swings of the weather from season to season – or within a season,” he adds. “It’s hard to change the planting date in July.”