Farmers in Northern Plains Brace For Drought

Canadian canola fields. Image: NASA Earth Observatory

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

As summer approaches, the Northern Plains of the United States and the Canadian Prairies, which are the world’s key growing regions for canola and spring wheat, are experiencing a record-breaking drought. 

Now, farmers fear that these parched fields won’t yield enough crop to satisfy unusually high demand. This fear is compounded as an increasing share of wheat is exported to China for animal feed leaving a smaller supply. 

Why this Matters: In 2017, the Northern Plains were hit with a similar flash drought that, as NOAA described, without warning, desiccated pastures, rangelands, and wheat, sparking massive wildfires and causing widespread livestock sell-offs across the Dakotas, northeastern Montana, and the Canadian Prairies. Three months after its onset, the drought was relieved by soaking September rains, but not before it inflicted $2.6 billion in economic losses on the region.

According to the agency, climate change could make these types of events more likely, which could significantly impact agriculture and food supplies. 

The Economics of It: Canada is the top producer of canola, an important oilseed for human and animal consumption. This is a fundamental issue of demand far exceeding supply as a result of ongoing droughts. Canola prices hit an all-time high in late March, and Canadian supplies are expected to hit an eight-year low in July. 

The same is true of wheat — wheat futures are the most expensive they’ve been since 2017, which could create shortages and drive up prices for food.

According to the latest weekly U.S. Drought Monitor, 70% of North Dakota in “extreme drought,” up from 47% the previous week. Meanwhile, western Manitoba had almost the driest winter in more than a century of records.

Under the Weather: To cope with the drought, farmers are planting less canola, especially because the dusty, arid soil can erode with the wind, preventing canola seeds from germinating. Instead, farmers plan to cede some of their land to grow soybeans, which are more drought-resistant and can be planted in June without needing to till the soil. 

North Dakota is turning to soybeans as well — the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasted that North Dakota farmers would plant 7 million acres of soybeans, which would make it the state’s most-planted crop. In contrast, wheat acres would fall 2% to 5.6 million.

Though there’s still hope that it could rain in the next 16-30 days, to make up for the deficit, the state will need 200% of the average spring rainfall.

I guess we seed in faith, hoping it’s going to rain,”  Steven Donald, a fourth-generation member of a family-owned grain and cattle farm in Saskatchewan, told Reuters. “It’s the driest that we can remember.”


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