Joe Logan grew up milking dairy cows as a fifth-generation dairy farmer and now raises food-grade soybeans, corn, wheat, barley, hay and grass-fed beef, as well as organic crops like pinto beans, potatoes and industrial hemp on a family farm in Trumbull County, Ohio.
He doesn’t struggle much with watering his crops where he is in northeast Ohio; all he needs is a “cool north wind coming across Lake Erie” in order to have precipitation. In other places in Ohio and the Midwest, however, that’s not always the case.
“We are a special microclimate up here in the northeast, but I know my friends and colleagues that work in western and southwestern Ohio [in the summertime begin] sweating that their crop may not make it as a result of protracted dry weather,” Logan said.
While many places in the Midwest historically haven’t had to rely heavily on artificial means to tend to crops, extreme and sporadic weather brought about by climate change is shifting how farmers are approaching their yield. Instead of predictable rainfall patterns that farmers can plan around, the forecast now often entails periods of heavy flooding that overwhelm crops and harm soil coupled with long periods of drought that threaten the crops’ durability to make it through the season.
In addition to managing his farm, Logan is also the president of the Ohio Farmers Union and corresponds with farmers across the nation regarding agricultural issues—including irrigation, the artificial watering of land that enables farmers to grow crops despite difficult weather conditions.
In his travels across the country to visit with other union leaders, Logan has witnessed a common worry amongst the agricultural community that climate change will wipe out their livelihood. While irrigation cannot end climate change or predict the weather, it can act as a safety net to attempt to harness and integrate the water needed to cultivate crops.
While places like Ohio haven’t typically relied on irrigation, they could soon be prime candidates for increased irrigation systems. Throughout his research, Jonathan Aguilar, an associate professor in biological and agricultural engineering at Kansas State University (KSU), observed a shift in the regions that have historically been deemed desirable for farming due to the shift in climate.
“We are losing some irrigated grounds in the west [part of Kansas], but we are gaining more irrigated grounds in the east, where traditionally they don’t need water because they have enough water for the whole season,” Aguilar said.
While climate change does not change the amount of water on the planet, it does change the water’s distribution.
“Overall, with climate change, we are not adding any water,” Aguilar said. “We are not losing any water. It’s redistributed.” The problem is that, in the U.S., “we are not used to this kind of redistribution.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the annual rainfall in the U.S. has not drastically changed over the last century. In 1901, the annual precipitation was about 29 inches, while today it is closer to 30 inches. The trajectory of heavy rainfall and which states encounter it, however, is shifting. For example, in 1980, Los Angeles, California, experienced 26.33 inches of rainfall. In 2020, the city had 9.8 inches of rainfall. Inversely, Kansas City, Missouri, had 31.79 inches of rainfall in 1980, and in 2019 had a high total of 53.2 inches of rainfall. While annual precipitation fluctuates based on weather patterns, the data points to a decrease in West Coast rainfall and an increase in Midwest rainfall.
In particular, Logan has seen shifts away from traditionally strong agricultural producers. He describes the central valley of California as the “greenery” basket for the nation’s fruits and vegetables. His colleagues in the west use irrigated water due to the desert-like environment that would persist without the presence of irrigation systems.
But California’s water supply is decreasing, and Logan sees this as an opportunity for smaller Midwestern farmers to step up to the plate and begin expanding their businesses to compensate and play an even bigger role in American agriculture.
Kansas, for example, is already one of the most heavily irrigated states in the nation — it accounted for 5.2 percent of shares of the nation’s irrigated acreage in 2012 with currently about 3 million irrigated acres— and is familiar with the various methods of water resourcing. In the 1970s and 1980s, flood irrigation flourished because it was the most widely available technology at that time. As the years passed and its efficiency came into question, center pivot irrigation became the primary method for the state’s irrigation. Center pivot irrigation now makes up over 90 percent of Kansas’ current irrigation, according to a study conducted at KSU and co-authored by Aguilar.
Aguilar explained that throughout his research, he is seeing that irrigation can double the crop yield as a solution to some of the issues posed by climate change. During the dry spells after flooding, irrigated areas lose fewer crops than areas that are not irrigated when they run dry. Irrigation enables an increase in yield without having to increase acreage, and a stabilization of that yield that could be a lifeline for struggling farmers.
Climate change has also brought about other concerns than just watering crops. Increased rainfall in these areas of the country also means increased soil erosion. Over the last few years, Logan’s area suffered intense periods of rainfall which led to heavy erosion, causing him to lose tons of topsoil. The issue with rainfall is its sporadic appearance in terms of when it comes, where it falls, what form it is in and its overall volume, Aguilar explained.
Like Logan, Aguilar noted the negative impact of irregular and torrential rainfall in Kansas, as well as the Midwest in general. Bursts of torrential rainfall lead to heavy amounts of runoff, as opposed to water that would infiltrate into the ground or atmosphere. This runoff is detrimental to the agricultural landscape, as it erodes the soil, threatens to harm nutrient levels, and can also impact dams and reservoirs.
In order to combat the problems associated with excess runoff, Aguilar believes that areas facing these issues need to manage the runoff before it harms downstream water quality, and to find a way to keep the water on the ground. If this issue is not addressed, he projects a loss of income for farmers because they have to reapply the water to their fields and risk losing their yields if the field’s nutrients erode away.
Additionally, urban areas that receive this runoff could have water quality concerns. Logan warned that contaminated water from runoff could turn into large algae blooms, which can quickly become toxic and pose additional health concerns to surrounding populations. Another concern is the various drilling efforts across the nation, especially those concentrated throughout the Midwest, which can cause high levels of pollutants in the water supply.
Interspersed between these extreme bouts of rain are periods of drought that could last up to two weeks. But Aguilar sees the Midwest’s natural dryland as a positive for farming.
“When you are dry, you have more time to be on the field,” Aguilar said.
When it is a dry season, farmers can spend a greater amount of time planting and preparing for yield. There is also less pressure from weeds and pests, less spoilage during harvest season and more capability to manage time in the field. But, of course, water must be sourced in order to sustain crop growth. This is where irrigation plays an important role, Aguilar said.
The areas that are good candidates for implementing irrigation, however, are not necessarily prepared to pick up the agricultural burden left by the regions that are used to supplying crops for the nation.
Without the intervention of agricultural experts, farmers in certain regions that do not predominantly supply agricultural produce may not know how to formulate the complex systems needed to bridge the gap between harsh drought and heavy precipitation. For example, experts such as Aguilar went to Alabama in recent years to help develop an irrigation system to combat the incredibly dry weeks farmers are experiencing between bursts of rainfall.
Ohio’s current irrigation practices are typically only used for greenhouses and other controlled agricultural situations as opposed to major farmland operations, Logan said. While irrigation would be helpful to other agricultural efforts, according to Logan, corn and soybeans are farmed on larger scales, and installation and maintenance for irrigation systems to accommodate the large size of their farming would be challenging.
“I just strap a big water tank on my skid loader and water my plants in a fairly low-tech way, but if we were going to get serious about it we would probably, on acreages that small, lay some drip irrigation in the ground,” Logan said.
For Ohio farmers interested in irrigating their acreage, drip irrigation is used for mounds and plotting crops on smaller farms. Logan described a new device that makes mounds in the soil, applies a film of plastic, and then inserts a drip irrigation line. This is done so that farmers can make mounds for their plants, have plastic to control their weeds and have an incorporated irrigation system to maximize crop success.
For Ohio, though, Logan believes that, if the agricultural economy remains in a healthy place and with the proper planning, the farmers in the state’s western region could price in irrigation systems and be confident in getting a “prompt return” on their investment.
While it won’t prevent the effects of climate change from disrupting agricultural norms across the United States, solid irrigation systems could move the tipping point at which these effects ravage the industry, helping farmers stay on track as adverse weather conditions increase.