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U.S. Crop Production Unlikely to Suffer Much From Floods

Spring flooding in the northern Plains and western Corn Belt will have a marginal impact on corn and soybean plantings, according to a USDA survey of growers and initial tallies of flooded land. With normal weather and yields, there would be limited impact on production of the two most widely grown U.S. crops, thanks to the huge amount of cropland nationwide.

Farmers intend to plant a combined 177 million acres of corn and soybeans this spring, said USDA in its annual Prospective Plantings Report on Friday. By comparison, estimates of farmland flooding range from 500,000 acres in Iowa and western Nebraska to 1.1 million acres in the Midwest.

If farmers follow through on plans to plant 92.8 million acres of corn and 84.6 million acres of soybeans, they would be on track to harvest the second-largest corn crop and the fourth-largest soybean crop on record after allowing for abandonment of some of the land due to bad weather, disease, or pests. USDA projects 1 million acres, on average, would produce 176 million bushels of corn or 49.5 million bushels of corn this year.

The USDA report was based on a survey of more than 82,000 farmers during the first two weeks of March, just before a blizzard swept cattle-producing western Nebraska and heavy spring rains accelerated snowmelt in the upper Missouri River basin. The spring planting season is on the horizon and there is widespread concern if flooding will persist and whether fields will dry out in time to produce a crop.

Maxar Technologies estimated more than 500,000 acres flooded in March in Iowa and Nebraska, two of the top corn and soybean states, based on its comparison of satellite imagery and USDA records of 2018 plantings. Maxar’s figure included 211,684 acres of corn land and 226,809 acres of soy land. “Major flooding is inevitable in the coming weeks as a deep snowpack continues to melt across the Red River (of the North) Valley,” an important corn, soybean and spring wheat-growing area,” said Kyle Tapley, senior agricultural meteorologist for Maxar.

Gro Intelligence analyzed satellite imagery at Reuters’ request to estimate nearly 1.1 million acres of crop land and 84,000 acres of pasture in the Midwest were inundated for at least seven days during the period of March 8-21. Some 474,271 acres in Iowa, No. 1 in corn and No. 2 in soybeans, were flooded, said Reuters. In Missouri, 203,188 acres were flooded.

Weather experts for the government say additional spring rain and melting snow will prolong and expand flooding this spring. Record snowfall across a large swath of the U.S. set the stage for elevated risk of flooding. The risk of major flooding is greatest in the upper Missouri and upper Mississippi river basins, says NOAA.

The great flood of 1993 is the benchmark for flood losses on the Missouri and Mississippi basin. “The magnitude and severity of this flood event was simply overwhelming, and it ranks as one of the greatest natural disasters ever to hit the United States,” said NOAA hydrologist Lee Larson at a 1996 conference on flooding. Damages approached $15 billion. “At least 15 million acres of farmland were inundated.”

Analytical firm AIR, which specializes in catastrophe modeling, said in a 2018 retrospective that roughly 10 million acres of farmland flooded in 1993 in the northern Plains and western Corn Belt, smaller than Larson’s figure but still a large amount of land. AIR and Larson say relentless rainfall from June to August kept rivers out of their banks for weeks or even months. Some places saw two or three times their usual summertime rainfall.

U.S. corn and soybean harvests plunged in 1993, mostly due to the cool and wet growing season and an earlier-than-usual killing frost that prevented plants from maturing in some areas. “Nationally, the year was wet and cool,” said USDA in a report summing up the year. The corn yield per acre fell by 23% and soybean yields dropped by 15%. Fourteen percent of corn acreage was not harvested, nearly twice the usual abandonment rate. Corn growers planted 3 million acres less than they planned in early March but soybean plantings were slightly larger, possibly picking up a bit of land originally planned for corn.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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