Justin Ralph estimates he's made about 200 trips bringing grain from the fields he farms with his brother and uncle this year. They are used to using their four semi-trucks to harvest a total of about 800 acres each of corn, soybeans and wheat for market.
What they are not used to is the distances they have had to travel over the past two years, a consequence of the bad weather that is expected to increase in their region as a result of climate change. They used to benefit from 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 the 2021 tornado outbreak that killed dozens of people and leveled entire parts of the city, and the company that operated it closed. Now, instead of driving ten minutes, they sometimes travel an hour or more.
“The fluctuations in weather that we have … it's kind of scary,” he said, especially for those with smaller farms. “If you have a larger holding, your acreage is spread over a larger area, so the risks are probably minimized more because they're spread out more.”
Farmers and experts echo Ralph and say that larger farms have more ways to manage risk, but smaller to medium-sized farmers struggle when extreme weather hits. Human-induced climate change is only expected to increase the number and intensity of these extreme events, from sudden droughts to increased rainfall. And as the planet warms, scientists say the country will see more storms that produce tornadoes and hail, and that these deadly events will hit populous mid-south states more often, a big problem for everyone who lives in those areas and especially for those trying to keep on small family farms.
That's already a reality for the area around Mayfield, which sits on a flat coastal plain in the western part of the state and has been hit by extreme weather in more ways than one. In addition to the 2021 tornado outbreak, this summer was hit by flooding that exceeded 10 inches in some areas, submerging crops.
Keith Lowry, another farmer near Mayfield, woke up one morning this summer to eight inches of rain, and by dinner time, when the deluge finally stopped, he knew he was in trouble.
Lowry found fields of half-submerged corn, soybeans that had almost entirely disappeared under the flood, and rushing water rushing from their overflow like a waterfall. Now, at harvest time, he estimates they've lost between five and 10 percent of their crop this year. In addition, they had to deal with debris washed into their fields, a nuisance that hinders heavy machinery.
Lowry has a relatively large operation – 3,000 acres, mostly in corn and soybeans, along with another 2,000 acres operated by his son. Although he has suffered some losses, 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. So a cloudy day this November found him helping out on a much smaller plot of land to bring in a harvest from about 250 acres.
While farmers and city dwellers have relied on each other to be resilient, the compounding effect of these natural disasters has had lasting effects on a community where agriculture is at the heart of commerce.
“Because we have such a large county that's really densely populated with grain farmers, the loss (of the grain elevator) has forced them to move to surrounding counties, often 40 or 50 miles away to get their grain,” said Miranda Rudolph, the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Agent for Graves County. He said the cost of fuel has increased, adding to the pressure.
Hans Schmitz, a conservation agronomist with the Purdue Extension Service, said large farms tend to have a wider range of options to balance risk, including crop insurance, which often costs less per acre when applied to larger acreage.
Jed Clark, for example, who farms about 3,000 acres of grain near Mayfield, said he relies on crop insurance and also tries to strategically space out his crop rotations, betting that crops in a low-lying area will do well in a dry one. year and that crops on higher ground will last longer than those washed away when flooded.
On smaller farms, if farmers are forced to put everything in a low-lying area that floods, an entire crop can be affected, Schmitz said. Therefore, farmers with less land sometimes look to specialty crops like watermelon or tomato to try to increase profits with the acreage they have, but these crops are not so easily insured.
Schmitz said he believes climate change is contributing to the consolidation of farmland — that is, large farms are getting bigger. It is relatively easy for a very small farm to start, but more difficult to stay afloat. “What concerns me is the gap in the middle,” he said.
A smaller farm's ability to survive also has to do with infrastructure, said Adam Koff, another Kentucky farmer who has a mostly family-run 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat (as well as two hog barns and 100 sheep ) between Mayfield. and Murray. He believes the farmers most affected after the tornado were those who did not have grain storage on their land.
Kough said he's noticed changes in weather over the years, but he believes the corporate mindset has more to do with why big farms will always get bigger. “People have changed more than the weather,” he said. “Mores have changed in the last 20 years… I call it extreme.”
However, the weather effects are undeniable. Schmitz, who also farms about 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Indiana, says he has seen increased summer moisture favor wheat, barley and oat diseases in the Midwest. He has seen higher night temperatures cause more heat stress in most crops. And he said that while some farmers turn to irrigation to get them through sudden and severe droughts – he has seen those same irrigation shafts end up in standing water after severe and 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 capacity for very significant weather changes in a short period of time,” he said. “But to see climate change exacerbating these potential extremes in such a short period of time is alarming.”
Associated Press reporter Joshua Bickel contributed to this report.
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