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For farmers, watching and waiting is a spring planting ritual. Climate change increases fear

SABINA, Ohio – It was just after dark when Ross Woodruff jumped into a truck to transport soybean seeds to his brother Mark, whose planter was empty. It was the first day they could plant after heavy rains two weeks earlier left much of their 9,000 acres too muddy to get equipment into the fields.

With drier conditions, Mark had been working hard since the afternoon, harvesting the beans from a 60-acre field before moving to another.

“This year the weather has slowed progress,” Ross Woodruff said. “I wouldn’t say we’re behind, but if it rains a few more times we’ll get there.”

Waiting out the weather is an old story in agriculture, but as climate change causes an increase in spring rainfall in the Midwest, the usual anxiety surrounding the ritual of spring planting is expected to increase with it. For example, since 1995, farmers in Ohio have lost about five days of field work in April, according to Aaron Wilson, the state’s climatologist.

If farmers have to wait for the fields to dry out, long planting days can become stressful tests that extend into the night. Delays in sowing can affect yield if significant enough, and the quality of plants planted in wet springs can also be affected at harvest.

“We expect this problem to continue to worsen,” said Dennis Todey, director of the Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub. “We need to help agriculture understand this and develop new management mechanisms to deal with it by changing how we plant, when we plant and what we plant.”

Increasing spring rains

Experts say one effect of climate change is that warming pushes more water into the atmosphere, driving up precipitation. Much of the Midwest has seen a 5% to 15% increase in spring precipitation over the past three decades, according to the federal government’s Fifth National Climate Assessment. This assessment predicted a further increase of 8 to 20% in the region by mid-century.

“The number of days with extremes is increasing. It’s an upward trend,” said Melissa Widhalm, regional climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.

According to NOAA, the Ohio Valley experienced an increase in April rainfall of about a quarter of an inch per decade between 1980 and 2023, the highest of any area in the country except the Southeast. Southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and much of Indiana saw some of the biggest increases in April rainfall in the Ohio Valley – up to 5 to 6 inches more than usual in 2024, according to an Associated Press review of four decades of rainfall data University of Idaho.

Farmers “will need the ability to deal with a broader range of conditions,” Widhalm said.

Fewer days increase the pressure

Operations of all sizes are under pressure to work as much as possible when field conditions allow.

This April, Katy Rogers, who manages the 117-acre Teter Retreat and Organic Farm in Noblesville, Indiana, planted lettuce seedlings after sunset, long after her employees had left for the day. Like the Woodruffs, she had to catch up after heavy rains flooded some of her fields weeks ago. On their small vegetable farm, several crops are planted in the spring for harvest in the summer, and other crops are planted in the summer for harvest in the fall.

“If we miss a window and go off schedule, the crop may not come in at all,” Rogers said. “Maybe we’ll just throw these seedlings away.”

Already this year, she decided not to plant Brussels sprouts because the fields could not be cultivated in the few weeks it took to plant them, which meant a loss in sales of about $2,800. Because her operation is smaller, Rogers can seed by hand when wet fields don’t allow her tractor, but it’s “extremely strenuous” work, she said.

“It’s tiring to come out and stand in the rain that makes you feel like it’s going to hit you,” Rogers said. She said she expects to plant more in covered structures and less in fields in the future.

Ross Woodruff of Ohio says it seems like spring days that are good for field work tend to be sporadic – coming in two- or three-day bursts rather than the week-long stretches he remembers from his 20 years remembered as a farmer. During these shorter bursts, the hours are long.

“We will try to keep operations running 24 hours a day, provided we have enough manpower,” he said.

ADAPTING TO THE RAIN

More rain means farmers have to manage the water, which can lead to soil erosion. A 2018 study by Purdue University researchers predicted that runoff from spring rains could increase by 40 to 70% in some parts of the state.

The Woodruffs, like many larger farms, rely on tile drainage to remove excess water from the fields. These tiles are large perforated plastic pipes about 1 meter underground that collect and drain water, usually to a channel between fields. “It’s an expensive system, but it pays off in crop yield,” said Ross Woodruff.

But tile drainage has its disadvantages: it removes moisture from the soil regardless of how much rain has fallen, and there is a risk of leaving fields dry if there is no rain in summer.

Building healthy soils is critical for farmers as they adapt to more spring rainfall.

Wendy Carpenter, who owns the 1 1/2-acre Christopher Farm in Modoc, Indiana, uses some sustainable farming techniques.

Like many larger operations, it plants cover crops in fields that would otherwise be bare between planting seasons and uses no-till. This allows organic matter to remain in the soil and help maintain the structure. Carpenter says their fields can handle excess water and retain some of that moisture during excessively dry periods.

This spring, she and her four employees were able to manually plant vegetables outdoors, even after about 7 inches of rain over a week earlier in the month. She says these practices, along with the smallness of her farm and lack of heavy equipment, have allowed her to be somewhat more resilient compared to the more conventional row crop farms in her area that had not yet begun planting.

“If we get these really, really heavy rains, everyone is going to be in trouble,” Carpenter said. “Those of us who actively work to increase the organic matter in our soil will make a difference in how long water is retained.”

And the plant diversity that forms a large part of the plan at Teter Farm helps build resilience. Although Rogers has already had to forego growing one crop this spring, she has dozens of others.

As the Woodruffs rushed to plant as darkness fell last month, Mark and Ross worked quickly to reload the planter, turn it over, and place it in the next row. The planter clattered to life, its blades lowering into the ground and the tractor’s headlight marking a clear path.

Mark didn’t finish planting until 11 a.m., while Ross stayed up doing office work until after midnight. And they weren’t alone.

Down the road another farmer was planting his field under the full moon.

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Associated Press data journalist Mary Katherine Wildeman reported from Hartford, Connecticut.

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Follow Joshua A. Bickel on X and Instagram.

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