Evan Barry is seated on a wooden produce crate in the garage on the two-acres of farmland he rents in East Peoria.
It wasn’t an ideal day for farming as heavy rains relegated him and his one co-worker to greenhouse work. About halfway through the conversation, he had to close one of the doors on the garage, rain was beginning to angle toward his seat.
The rain put a halt to some of the work Barry had planned for the day, but that comes as no surprise to him as farmers across the Midwest have been burdened by heavy precipitation this planting season.
Burdened, in fact, may be putting it lightly. Due to heavy rains and flooded fields, farmers like Barry have had to plant later than usual and, in some cases, not plant certain crops at all.
Farming is, Barry explained, a race against time, with the finish line — or perhaps Freddy Krueger surrogate — being the year’s first frost.
With the timeline condensed because of wet soil, Barry had to cut out some crops, including dry corn, and had to “mud in” other crops. Mudding in means to plant the seeds while the soil is still too wet, or muddy.
It’s not ideal, but it’s what had to be done, according to Barry, who mudded in crops like sweet potatoes this year.
“Some of them caught and some of them didn’t. The tough thing is when you have a really rough spring, those repercussions are felt through the whole season,” said Barry. “When I mud my sweet potatoes in, I’m not going to get as much of a yield. I’m going to lose money.”
Barry estimates he had to either mud in or transplant 15 percent of this season’s crops.
Don Wuebbles is the Harry E. Preble Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Illinois, and in 2007 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
He’s also a farm boy.
Wuebbles grew up on a farm that his father worked. His uncles were farmers. Even his father-in-law was a farmer.
Those two familiar worlds, farming and climate change, are overlapping, and Wuebbles is worried about the impact it will have on the industry, and the people who work in it.
“Farming is always on kind of an economic edge, at least that’s what I saw when I was growing up, and I think that remains true today that farmers get by but they are often barely making it,” said Wuebbles. “When you add extra stresses into that system like the changes in climate… then it makes it even more difficult for farmers.”
One potential symptom of climate change is greater precipitation.
The problem is two-fold: research shows that it’s going to rain more often, and when it does rain, the rainfall totals will be higher.
“It’s just been getting worse and worse, and they expect that to continue if you look at the projections of climate. We expect that we’ll get more precipitation in the Midwest in general, but also, particularly, severe precipitation in the future,” said Wuebbles.
According to Tazewell County Farm Bureau Manager Emily Rogier, this has been the fourth wettest spring on record. The National Weather Service, as of June 20, has recorded 26.28 in. of rain, up from the average by 9.61 in.
“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult planting season,” she said.
This has caused Barry to be flexible in his strategy, but he’s lucky in a few ways.
His two-acres sit on higher ground than a lot of other farms, he said, and he’s been strategic in his design, he uses a lot of raised beds which allow for more drainage. In fact, Barry said, his land might be some of the driest in the area.
“I’ve had to kind of shift and change my approach, but again because I’m a fairly small farm — we cultivate two acres — I’m able to do that and it be feasible, whereas I know some other big vegetable farms can’t do that,” said Barry.
One day after Barry was confined to his greenhouses, the sun was shining on Lawrence Family Farms in Delavan.
The prior day’s rainfall totaled 2.05 in., according to the National Weather Service, leaving standing water on plenty of the 26 acres at Trent Lawrence’s farm.
Lawrence bought the farm at the end of 2017 and began planting his crops in 2018, hoping to bring a local food stream to Delavan, which lost its only grocery store to a fire in 2014.
His wife, and two of the couple’s six kids work the farm with him.
In year one, things didn’t go well, but that was partially to be expected. Lawrence credited some of the struggle to start-up cost and growing pains, but added that there was reason for optimism.
He sold every watermelon he grew, and he was proud of his hot pepper crop.
For 2019, he came out swinging.
He had developed a thorough plan, hoping to piggyback off the succesful aspects of 2018 and learn from the mistakes.
“I made this really elaborate plan. I had everything, absolutely everything, that we were supposed to do this year planned out,” said Lawrence. “And then Mother Nature just rained, and rained, and rained.”
“Five or six weeks into the plan I’m crossing stuff out with red ink and it’s like, ‘okay, this is not going right at all,’” said Lawrence.
The pepper fields that were thriving last year featured only a few peppers on Thursday. The watermelons weren’t looking promising either.
“I did succession planting on watermelons last year, because I didn’t want all of the watermelon harvest stacking up on me at once. We planted our first watermelons out this year a week after I did my very last one last year, and most of those got killed by frost,” said Lawrence.
Including the cost of start-up infrastructure, new equipment and seed cost, by the end of 2018 Lawrence had put roughly $600,000 into the farm, he said.
He planned to have crops to sell throughout the year, including at the farmers market in Lincoln this spring.
Last weekend, the family gathered everything they could harvest from the spring season and took it to the market. They sold out, but only made $36.
Of the 70 fruits and vegetables that he planned to plant this year, he estimates they planted half.
With 2019’s yields in question, and the farm’s long-term future looking equally shaky, Lawrence made a hard pivot in May.
Earlier this year, the Illinois Department of Agriculture began accepting applications for licenses to grow industrial hemp, and Lawrence applied, and was accepted.
He ordered seeds the next day and now Lawrence Family Farms also grows industrial hemp.
“I had to do something, because otherwise this farm wasn’t going to make it another year,” said Lawrence. “There’s zero chance that we were going to be here another year.”
In addition to hemp, Lawrence has dedicated part of his land to perennial fruits and vegetables — including fruit trees and berries — that he says will tolerate even the abnormally wet conditions.
“When this spring was so very, very wet, I really started shifting. The idea had to pivot,” said Lawrence, “because if we keep having weather like this or another year like this, we need to have something in existence that we don’t have to work the soil for.”
Don Wuebbles was speaking at a conference for farmers a few months ago. He was slated to give a talk about climate change, he said.
“In the past, farmers have been a little reluctant,” said Wuebbles, “but in this case it was totally changed, and a lot of (that) is because of these changes that farmers have been seeing themselves. They’re now getting it.”
You can file Trent Lawrence under that group of farmers who have had a change of heart on the existence, and effects, of climate change.
“I’d kind of joke about it because I like to grow tropical peppers, it gets a little warmer here that’s fine with me, but if we have a monsoon season every year, that’s different, that’s not good,” said Lawrence.
“We had a serious drought last year and then just rain and rain and rain and then we have these couples years of polar vortexes now, maybe there’s something to it,” he added.
In the years to come, Down River’s Barry thinks farm design and resiliency are going to be crucial to not only specialty crop growers like himself but to the corn and soybean farmers the Midwest is known for.
“We’re entering a new era of farming where thinking about your farm’s ability to handle erratic climate occurrences is a requirement,” said Barry.
“For us specialty crop growers, we have many backup plans because our income depends on it,” he added. “Plus we have plans to prevent things from going wrong, the most important of which being diversity: diversity of crops and diversity of varieties of each of those crops. The large-scale model is going to continue to struggle if they can’t make significant changes and start factoring in inevitable challenges climate change will bring.”
Rogier reported that corn and soybean crops are about a month to six weeks behind schedule for farmers in Tazewell County, putting them in a potentially precarious position in the race against time.
The changes in precipitation patterns that Wuebbles described are only part of the changes in weather patterns farmers will have to consider. He said temperatures are projected to rise as well, which creates another set of problems.
“When it does turn around and you go into the summer mode, warmer temperatures in general mean drier soils and less precipitation during the summer months than we’ve had in the past,” said Wuebbles.
The US National Climate Assessment predicts that we could see a 10 to 30 percent reduction in crop production by mid-century, according to Wuebbles, who was a chapter author for chapter two of the assessment.
He said some additional analysis he’s worked on shows reduction for corn specifically could be more like 50 percent.
The data doesn’t appear to leave room for much optimism, but Barry believes farming can still be a feasible enterprise with a bit of foresight.
“Everyone is up in arms because we all thought the modern farming system had proven smarter than nature,” said Barry. “This season has shown us that those systems are much more fragile than we thought and, ultimately, (we) still have to answer to nature.”
Barry’s optimism is cautious. Though he said Down River has been able to successfully scale upward in its second year, he knows planning for the future — which includes the changing climate — will come with a hefty workload.
“I think,” he said, “we’re going to find that farming in general is going to become much more difficult.”