First Scorched, Then Soaked: Weather Whiplash Confounds Farmers

This single field, just 160 acres of Kansas dirt, tells the story of a torturous wheat season.

One side is a drought-scorched graveyard for grain that never made it to harvest.

Near the center, combines plod through chest-high weeds and underwhelming patches of beige wheat, just enough of it to make a harvest worthwhile.

And over by the tree line, the most tantalizing wheat beckons like a desert mirage. The grain there is flourishing, the beneficiary of a late-season shift from dry to drenching. But it will never be collected: The ground is too waterlogged to support the weight of harvesting equipment.

“It really doesn’t get any crazier than right here, right now,” the farmer of that land, Jason Ochs, said last week as he salvaged what he could from the field.

At a time when the global grain market has been scrambled by a war between two major wheat producers, Ukraine and Russia, farmers in Kansas are bringing in the state’s smallest wheat crop in more than half a century.

The main culprit is the extreme drought that, as recently as late April, had ensnared almost the entire western half of the state, and forced many farmers to abandon their crops. More recently, intense rain has eased the drought, but it came too late for much of Kansas’ winter wheat, which was planted in the fall for harvest in late spring and early summer.

The dueling weather extremes have confounded farmers and raised long-term climate questions about the future of the Great Plains wheat crop.

On the Plains, “precipitation and temperature are projected to trend in opposite directions in the future,” said Xiaomao Lin, the state climatologist of Kansas and a professor at Kansas State University. “Specifically, temperatures are expected to rise while rainfall decreases. Both of these changes are detrimental to wheat crops.”

A study Dr. Lin co-wrote last year in the journal Nature Communications linked yield loss in Great Plains winter wheat since the 1980s to periods of intense heat, stiff winds and little moisture, hallmarks of climate change.

Dr. Lin said the early part of the 2022-23 wheat-growing season was the driest on the Plains in 128 years — even drier than during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s — though he cautioned that it was too soon to say precisely what role climate change played in this year’s particular conditions.

Wheat is more than just a crop in Kansas, where “The Wheat State” was once stamped on license plates and where University of Kansas sports fans “wave the wheat” to celebrate a score. Though Kansas farmers plant far fewer acres of wheat now than they did a generation ago — they can often make more money growing corn or soybeans — the state remains one of the country’s leading producers of wheat. The crop is sold for flour on the domestic market and exported in large quantities to Latin America, among other places.

The importance of the Plains wheat crop has only become clearer over the last year, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine created uncertainty around the global supply of the staple crop, a major source of nutrition in developing countries. Large harvests in other parts of the world have helped limit the instability, but fresh fears of shortages have arisen after Russia stepped up its attacks on key grain-shipping ports and suspended an agreement that had allowed Ukrainian wheat to be transported across the Black Sea.

On the Plains, the war has made for volatile commodity prices, fast-changing market conditions and, among some farmers, a sense that their work matters more than before. Wheat prices have shot up, in part because of the turmoil in Europe, but many American farmers have still struggled because the yields are so small.

“We try to remind people that you won’t get that price if you don’t have wheat to sell,” said Aaron Harries, the vice president of research and operations for the Kansas Wheat Commission.

Some farmers’ wheat is so scraggly that it is not worth harvesting, leaving them to rely on crop insurance.

About halfway between Kansas City and Denver in west-central Kansas, where Mike McClellan farms, the drought has persisted. And for the first time in the decades he has been farming, Mr. McClellan did not harvest any of his winter wheat.

“We had to get the crop adjusters out there to look and it and get it destroyed,” Mr. McClellan said.

In other parts of Kansas, like Mr. Ochs’s land near Syracuse, by the Colorado state line, a wheat crop that once seemed doomed by a lack of rain ended up being challenged by too much moisture.

Syracuse had 12 days in June with one-tenth of an inch or more of rain, the most in a single month since 1951, according to federal data. By the end of July, Hamilton County, which includes Syracuse, was completely out of the drought.

The rain was a boon for crops that were planted in the spring, like corn and grain sorghum, and in some places it gave a last-minute boost to the wheat. But the showers forced weeks of delays in the wheat harvest, and left some soil so soggy that no crop could be collected on it.

“For me, it’s mind-boggling,” said Mr. Ochs, adding that though his winter wheat withered, his spring crops were as strong as any he had ever grown. “I talked to what I call old-timers and they’re the same way — they’ve never seen anything like this.”

Such intense, rapidly changing weather has not been limited to Kansas.

In California, years of drought were washed away this spring with so much water that a long-dormant lake re-emerged over a huge stretch of cropland. In Nebraska, the governor reached out to federal officials for help last week after a brief period of extreme humidity and high temperatures led to widespread cattle deaths. In Georgia, a warm winter followed by a series of hard freezes in March wiped out most of the state’s peach crop.

Globally, July was the earth’s warmest month on record, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. Ocean temperatures have soared this year to new highs.

The planet has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century, and will continue to grow hotter until humans essentially stop burning oil, gas and coal, scientists say. The warmer overall temperatures contribute to extreme-weather events and help make periods of extreme heat more frequent, longer and more intense.

Doug Kluck, a regional climate services director at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the rapid changes on the Plains this year resulted from “a confusing set of variables” that scientists are still working to understand.

But while there might be historical precedent for the local extremes of weather that were seen this year, he said, a broader view suggested something unique was afoot.

“People like to like to look back at the past and say, ‘Oh, you know, it’s just as hot as 1936’ or, ‘It was just as wet,’” said Mr. Kluck, whose work focuses on the Central United States.

“It’s the big picture of not just looking at your backyard,” he added, but rather “looking at North America as a whole, looking at the world as a whole, and saying, ‘No, this is not what happened in 1930. We’ve never experienced this.’”

John Keefe contributed reporting.