“A couple of days ago, there were headlines saying South Dakota’s corn crop was unusually low this year—and they have a terrible drought—and that Nebraska was a little below normal,” says Daniel Sumner, an economist and director of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California, Davis. “But as of the middle of August, USDA was still projecting a normal national corn and soybean crop in the United States. And that’s because Indiana and Illinois and Iowa had relatively good crops, and are much more important in the national total, than Nebraska or South Dakota would be.”
Even if those differences average out nationally—possibly even globally, when you balance Southern Hemisphere production against the US and Western Europe, or the Americas against Central Europe and Asia—there’s a persistent sense that things are, well, wiggly. Some of the changes in productivity come from farmers’ decisions, like choosing to plant more in order to make up for a dry year, or less to mitigate the fertilizer price hikes created by Russia withholding exports. But some are unquestionably due to unpredictable weather patterns generated by climate change, which are affecting farmers’ routines as well as harming crops already in the fields.
“We’re seeing longer periods of dryness before the next rain event occurs, and that next rain event is more likely to be in the form of heavy rainfall that will end up running off” because the soil has hardened, says Beth Hall, director of the Indiana State Climate Office at Purdue University. “The success of crops this year in the US, in the broader Midwest region, was all about when farmers were able to plant their fields. Those that were planted earlier had roots deep enough that when it was dry, they could tap into some low moisture.” But if fields were muddy from rain and farmers couldn’t get into them, she adds, they planted later—and root systems were shorter and unable to keep new plants heavy before the next downpour came around.
Of course, farmers have always fretted about the weather. The challenge for crop experts right now is determining whether droughts and other disturbances—and the crop shortfalls they may cause—add up to a predictable trend. That’s especially important because, while productivity might not look bad overall, there isn’t much surplus grain stock thanks to scattered droughts last year and the supply shock of Ukraine’s breadbasket being temporarily locked out of the global food system.
“The key thing about stocks is that, if you have a drought, you can use them to keep prices reasonable—because when they get very low, prices get volatile,” says Joseph Glauber, a senior research fellow at the nonprofit International Food Policy Research Institute and former chief economist at the USDA. “I think people were hoping that stock levels would be rebuilt, essentially that we’d have really large crops this year. But there are these drought and weather disruptions around the world, though all the shoes haven’t fallen yet.”
No one who works in crop economics has forgotten that high grain prices more than a decade ago were the spark of civil unrest around the world: riots in Haiti, South America, and South Asia in 2008 and 2009, and the Arab Spring in 2010. And no one thinks things are that bad, yet. “It’s very easy to underestimate how flexible production can be,” Sumner says. “The current droughts don’t yet look nearly as severe as we’ve seen at least a half a dozen times in my career.”