This fall has been a mess for farmers in the Corn Belt. Rain this spring meant planting dangerously late, then cool weather delayed crops’ development. By September there was fear that corn across the Midwest wouldn’t finish the growing cycle before the first killing freeze. Most corn and soybeans are now safely mature, but seemingly endless rain has made that almost irrelevant. For most of the fall it has been too wet and muddy to get into the fields; when the combines do make it out, often the crop is too wet to harvest.
On the chat group Crop Talk, farmers who were incredulous that they might be harvesting past Thanksgiving started joking about “turkey on the combine.” As the rain continued through October, the jokes spread. “Turkey on the combine for sure,” Michigan’s 7810greenmachine wrote, “and maybe I hang some christmas lights on it too...I have a feeling its going to be a long harvest.” By November 1, Illinois had only 19 percent of its corn harvested, compared to 86 percent in an average year. And it was the same story across the region—Iowa had 18 percent harvested, Indiana 28 percent
So, who cares? Really, why should this matter to non-farmers, particularly those who want to change the commodity-focused food system? Well, it’s true that the corn and soybeans at issue are neither locally sold nor organic; their growers are not people you’ll meet at the farmers market. And yet, with wheat, they are the basis for an overwhelming percentage of the calories consumed in this country. Likewise, the majority of family farms in the U.S. are part of this business. If you want to change the food system, this is it.
To my eyes, the disaster unfolding in the Corn Belt is further evidence of a dangerous lack of resiliency. To run properly, our current agricultural system relies on a precise set of conditions: cheap fuel, ample water, stable climate; tweak one of those conditions and the system derails. In the meantime, the industry continues its narrow focus on yields. Nearly all season the USDA has been breathlessly forecasting record-breaking yields in corn—but with virtually no mention of the extenuating circumstances that might make that big, fat crop unharvestable.
Now, across wide swaths of the Corn Belt, farmers are finding their corn covered with molds called aflatoxins, which can be harmful to cattle and so are causing some buyers to reject the crop. In the mid-South, Kansas State University economist Rich Llewelyn reported a different problem: crops there matured earlier, but because rain left them sitting in the field for weeks, both corn and soybeans have begun sprouting while still on the stalk. Though Midwest skies have been clear this past week, most crops are still too high in moisture to be stored for any length of time. They could be dried down mechanically, but in many cases the high cost of propane is making that prohibitively expensive. Instead, those farmers are leaving the crop in the field and hoping that, somehow, their luck will change.
In an article this spring I wrote that part of the solution to challenges like these would be to increase diversity, from the crops’ germplasm all the way up to the wholesale markets. Amidst the muddy debacle taking place this fall, I would underscore the emphasis on using diversity to breed more resilient plant varieties. Rather than focus solely on yield or specific items such as drought-tolerance or herbicide resistance, we need varieties that can flex along with whatever conditions they encounter. With climate change afoot, it may be that turkey on the combine will become an annual affair. We need to be ready for that, and whatever else Mother Nature sends our way.
Lisa M. Hamilton is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness