MAYFIELD, Ky. — Justin Ralph estimates he’s made about 200 trips this year delivering grain from the fields he farms with his brother and uncle. They are used to using their four 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 are the distances they have had to travel over the past two years, a consequence of bad weather that is only expected to increase in their area as a result of climate change. They used to take 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 the 2021 tornado outbreak, which killed dozens of people and destroyed entire parts of the city, and the company that ran it closed. Now, instead of driving ten minutes, they sometimes travel an hour or more.
“The fluctuations in weather events that we have…that’s a little scary,” he said, especially for those with smaller farms. “If you have a larger farming operation, your acreage is spread out over a larger area, so the risks are probably more minimized because they are more spread out.”
Farmers and experts agree with Ralph and say that larger farms have more ways to manage risks, but small and medium-sized farmers face difficulties when extreme weather conditions occur. Human-caused climate change is expected to only amplify 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 tornado- and hail-generating storms and that these deadly events will occur more frequently in the populous south-central states, a big problem for everyone who lives in those areas and especially for those trying to maintain small family farms.
That’s already a reality for the area around Mayfield, which sits in a flat region of the coastal plain in the western part of the state and has been hit by extreme weather in a variety of ways. In addition to the tornado outbreak in 2021, this summer they were hit by floods that exceeded 25 centimeters in some areas, submerging crops.
Keith Lowry, another farmer near Mayfield, woke up one morning this summer to eight inches of rain, and by dinnertime, when the deluge finally stopped, he knew he had a problem.
Lowry found half-submerged cornfields, soybeans that had mostly disappeared beneath the floodwaters, and rapids pouring out of its spillway like a waterfall. Now, at harvest time, he estimates they have lost between five and 10% of this year’s harvest. What’s more, they had to deal with debris that found its way into their fields, a nuisance that hampers heavy machinery.
Lowry has a relatively large operation — 3,000 acres of mostly corn and soybeans, along with another 2,000 acres that his son farms. Although he has suffered some losses, he says he and other farmers are used to dealing with uncooperative weather conditions. “That’s the nature of the beast,” he said.
While farmers and city residents have supported each other to be resilient, the compounding effect of these natural disasters has had lasting impacts on a community where agriculture is at the heart of commerce.
“Because we have such a large county that is densely populated with grain producers, the loss (of the grain elevator) forced them to move to neighboring counties, often 40 or 50 miles away, to transport their grain,” he said. Miranda Rudolph, the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Agent for Graves County. She said fuel costs have risen, adding to tension.
Hans Schmitz, a conservation agronomist with the Purdue Extension agency, said large farms tend to have a wider range of options for balancing their risk, including crop insurance, which often costs less per acre when applied to larger areas.
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 distribute his crop rotations, betting that crops in low-lying areas will perform well in a dry year. and that crops on higher ground will survive those destroyed by floods.
On smaller farms, if farmers are forced to put everything in a low-lying area that floods, an entire harvest could be affected, Schmitz said. Therefore, farmers with less land sometimes turn to specialty crops, such as watermelon or tomatoes, to try to increase profits from the cultivated area they have, but these crops are not as easily insured.
Schmitz said he believes climate change is contributing to the consolidation of farmland – in other words, the increase in large farms. It’s relatively easy for a very small farm to start, but it’s harder to keep it running. “What worries me is the emptying of the environment,” he said.
A smaller farm’s ability to survive also has to do with infrastructure, said Adam Kough, another Kentucky farmer who has 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat run mostly by one family (as well as two hog barns and 100 sheep) between Mayfield. and Murray. He thinks the farmers most harmed after the tornado were those who didn’t have grain storage on their land.
Kough said he has noticed changes in the climate over the years, but he thinks corporate mentality has more to do with why big farms will always get bigger. “People have changed more than the climate,” he said. “Morals have changed in the last 20 years… I call it cruelty.”
Still, the climate impacts are undeniable. Schmitz, who also farms about 1,200 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in Indiana, says he has seen increased summer humidity promote disease in wheat, barley and oats in the Midwest. He noted that higher nighttime temperatures induce more heat stress in most crops. And he said that while some farmers turn to irrigation to survive sudden, intense droughts, he has seen those same irrigation pivots end up in standing water after intense, sudden floods.
“It goes back to the old saying in the Midwest, ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes.’ We certainly have always had the capacity for quite significant climate change in a short period of time,” he said. “But seeing climate change exacerbate these potential extremes in both directions in a short period of time is disconcerting.”
Associated Press journalist Joshua Bickel contributed to this report.
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