The Drought of 2012 and the Harvest of 2013

J Brew photo.Economic Outcomes and Innovation Ahead

By Ania Swiatoniowski

As farmers plant their crops this spring for the 2013 harvest, the losses from last year’s drought must remain on their minds. The 2012 drought dearly cost the American farming sector in net crop and net cash incomes and resulted in nation-wide rises in food prices. But farmers have always been known to be innovators and today’s technology is providing them with new ways to protect against unfavourable conditions, even those as potentially damaging as drought.

 The 2012 drought was the worst in over half a century and the year went on record as the hottest in recorded US history. The result was an estimated $18 billion in damage to corn, soybeans and other key crops.

 Farmers throughout the US were affected, but the most affected by the drought were farmers in the Midwest, where the drought conditions were the most extreme. Field crop yields, particularly of corn and soybeans, fell far below expected levels. Significant amounts of corn and soybean acreage fell within highly affected areas, both being major crops in the US for domestic use and for export.

 The significant losses have spurned farmers to look for way to make their farms and yields less susceptible to future droughts. During a drought, the aim is to maximise benefit from the limited amount of available water. This can be done in two ways: by reducing the amount of water needed or by minimizing water loss. Technologies are being developed to overcome drought conditions using both of these strategies.

Reducing Water Need

Drought-resistant crop plants require less water over the growing season. Various companies have put new drought-resistant corn hybrids on the market for limited release in 2013. Soybean drought-resistant hybrids are also available. Hybrid crops are made using high-tech versions of traditional breeding to enhance and combine desired physiological traits —  in this case increasing corn drought resistance — and are not the same as genetically modified crops.

However, drought-resistant hybrids must be chosen carefully because one that has good yield in dry conditions may not have the same yield at normal moisture levels. Research labs such as the Statewide Hybrid and Variety Trials at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture test new crop plant varieties and hybrids for yield in particular environments, including low water conditions, taking this testing stage out of the farmer’s hands.

Selecting crop plant varieties and hybrids is dependant on the farm’s geographic location and on projected precipitation for a growing season in any given year prior to planting. Improving selection is important due to the wide range of climates in the US and due the range of water shortage severity in any given year or area. Both drought-resistant varieties and hybrids are continually appearing on the market from several seed producing companies including Syngenta and Dupont.

Minimize Water Loss

Irrigation makes crops less dependant on precipitation levels, but must be managed as irrigation water becomes scarcer. In 2012, the USDA recommended that farmers using irrigation systems monitor moisture and adjust irrigation continuously to minimize water loss under drought conditions. To provide water to crops with minimal water loss, farmers need ways to better monitor and control irrigation systems and they need the most complete and up to date information possible to make water supply decisions as conditions change.

While irrigation use in farming is far from new, the use of remote technology in monitoring and controlling crop irrigation systems is. Moisture sensors in the ground can collect information at particular soil depths and then send that information remotely to a computer or even phone to help monitor soil moisture. With additional technology, farmers can remotely control irrigation pipes and valves, manipulate water flow as needed or update timed systems. The products are available on the market, but in early form.

In April, the USDA announced $5.3 million in Conservation Innovation Grants awarded to technology development that will help farm producers adapt in future droughts. University of Florida researchers are currently developing mobile app software that will integrate both real time and forecast weather information that farmers can use to improve irrigation management and converse supply water. The program will also allow users to input specific information to tailor the app for their famers, such as field capacity, rooting depth, and details of their irrigation systems. The project will also include training seminars both in person and on-line.

Texas A&M AgriLife Research currently has three weather stations that post regional weather information on-line for farmers to access. Their objective is to develop internet-based computer software that farmers can use to adapt irrigation management based on conditions such as drought. This system will let farmers minimize use of irrigation supply water during different weather conditions.

Drought protection technologies in the conceptual and research stages also show promising technological advances for crop farming. Alvin Smucker, Michigan State University, is developing a new water retention method in which polyethylene water barrier films are placed in the soil at various depths called subsurface water retention technology (SWRT). The films are flexible to maximise water retention and are installed by a specialized device. The system is a concept similar to asphalt barriers, but is expected to be simpler and more efficient. The film method could increase retention efficiencies by up to 20 times, according to Smucker.

There are good reasons for farmers and many others to be concerned about future droughts. The 2012 drought affected over 80% of the country’s agricultural land and corn and soybean crops in particular. Corn and soybean are the US’s top two crops as measured by harvested acreage and cash receipts from sales. In 2012, the USDA warned that food prices would rise by 3-4% in 2013 due to the drought (which is higher than the normal food price inflation of around 2.8% per year.) The overall increases in food prices are driven by the cost of grain. Because corn is a major US export, the drought’s effect on crop yields were also expected to affect global food prices.

In Canada, extreme weather conditions were more sporadic and much less damaging. Ontario west of Ottawa and parts of Manitoba experienced dry conditions and suffered crop losses. However, nationwide, all grain crop yields were higher than normal, including the highest wheat yield in three years. The canola harvest set a record high at 16 million tonnes.

Despite the losses to farmers in 2012, long-term trends of farm income measures show promise. Farm income measures show an increasing rising trend as farm assets are increasing faster than farm debt. According to the USDA, this trend is expected to continue and indicate that the sector has a greater ability to handle income shocks.

While droughts can have cyclic occurrences, they are difficult to predict, even within months, due to complexity in meteorological factors. Strategies to protect crops and maintain yield during drought periods will likely continue to be important to the farming industry and national economies.

University of Kentucky, Kentucky Statewide Hybrid and Variety Trials:
Smart irrigation smartphone app – University of Florida:
Texas A&M AgriLife Research:
The subsurface water retention technology (SWRT), Alvin Smucker, Michigan State University:
The USDA Current U.S. Drought Monitor is an on-line map showing weekly updated drought occurrence and severity across the United States:( It is provided in partnership between the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Resources Quarterly - Summer 2013

This feature originally appears in the Summer 2013 edition of Resources Quarterly.

Click here or on the cover to view the entire issue.