It’s hard to imagine anyone thinking more about the weather than farmers, but then again, there’s Chief Meteorologist Mark Brusberg of USDA’s agricultural weather and assessments group. This week, Lindsey talks with Mark about the ways that drought, extreme weather, and the changing climate are impacting farmers and agricultural production globally and here at home. Mark also talks about “the blob,” building farm weather resilience, and how farmers can keep track of it all.
US Drought Monitor
Lindsey: This is the Young Farmers Podcast. I’m Lindsey Lusher Shute. First, a quick announcement. If you’re in New York State or care about state policy, I want you to know that NYFC just released a report about New York’s high farmland prices and policy strategies to keep that land affordable for future generations. Check it out at youngfarmers.org. Onto the pod. Most farmers i know are obsessed with the weather, and for a simple reason. The weather is tightly linked to how profitable and successful a farm will be in any season. On our farm, for example, we had a short-lived but major hail storm that knocked out nearly all of our crops this spring. And our western farmers, many of them are dealing with a deep drought and are trying to make it through the season. Today I’m talking to Mark Rosberg who serves as the chief meteorologist at USDA’s Agriculture Weather and Assessments Group, a component of the World Agricultural Outlook Board. He talks to us about the weather across the country and how farmers can keep track of it all.
Dustin Stein: Hi I’m Dustin Stein, ranch manager at Stubborn Farm and Burk Beef in Mancos, Colorado, where we raise grass fed and finished beef. I’m also a leader of the Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition. I’m a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, because it’s extremely important for young and first generation producers to have a voice at our nation’s capital. For 35 dollars a year, you too can join. In addition to being part of a bright and just future for agriculture in the United States, you’ll also get discounts like 16% off Earth Tools , walk behind tractors, and 5% off of Felco. To join, please visit Youngfarmers.org.
OG Weather Nerds
Mark: My name is Mark Brusberg. I’m the chief meteorologist here at USDA’s office of the chief economist. I’m physically located in Washington D.C. in the USDA south building.
Lindsey: What is the office of the chief meteorologist like?
Mark: Well, we’re a staff of five meteorologists. We cover global weather, uh, to provide whether intelligence to USDA’S monthly supply and demand estimates report. So you have one meteorologist monitoring weather in the United States. The other four are monitoring global conditions. I personally happened to be the South America weather analyst amongst other areas, you know, Canada and Mexico. So if there’s a drought in, for example, there was a drought in Argentina last year, I provided weather information and helped us try to determine exactly what the what the condition of the corn and soybean crop was.
Lindsey: And where does your weather data come from?
Mark: It’s primarily through our agreement with National Weather Service
Lindsey: And the National Weather Service, it has its own worldwide network of weather stations.
Mark: Well, they get the data from other countries through an agreement through the World Meteorological Organization. That’s a United Nations, uh, agency. So the weather bureaus of other countries have signed an international agreement where they promised to give a certain amount of data from their countries.
Lindsey: I see. I, you know, just with all of the conversations these days around trade and tariffs and what other countries are producing and how that competes with the US corn…I’m just thinking of the example of Brazil, uh the commodity market…I guess these agreements are long standing and shared, but none of that data is sort of protected from those, uh, I mean, I wonder if any —
Mark: Oh you mean, would there be an embargo of data for any reason?
Lindsey: Right, uh huh.
Mark: Well I’ve seen it twice and the one time was during the first Iraq war when Iraq stopped transmitting their data during the war. The only other time that I’ve seen a reduction of data–I can’t remember the year, but it was in the 1990’s. Germany had a policy where they wanted to charge more for their data and that sort of went against what the WMO was sort of supporting and they started giving us less data. I couldn’t see a country whoa withholding data for any, any purposes like that because it is, especially in this day of satellites, I mean, you could do a fairly reasonable job estimating rainfall and temperature using satellites. I think they’d be cutting off their nose to spite their face, really. They started doing things like that and you know, the scientific community, we sort of stick together. I don’t know that we would want to politicize what we’re doing.
Lindsey: I’m just wondering, does politics, do different administrations impact fear core responsibilities or your work at USDA or is the weather something that everyone can agree on?
Mark: Yeah, we’ve, we’ve never had any political pressure put on us to do anything. Um, there’s been times, uh, I remember one of my predecessors as chief meteorologist was asked to put his name on a declaration regarding climate change. And he refused to do that because it wasn’t part of our purview and he was absolutely correct. I mean, we don’t do anything with climate change here. You know, we don’t do climate research, we’re not the ones that do that. So, you know, we didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes or pretend that we know more than we do.
Lindsey: We don’t have to call it climate change or talk about causation or anything, but I am wondering what the data would say about the current conditions across the United States that are, that our farmers are facing. We’re seeing severe rainstorms, certainly drought conditions in the southwest. Uh, I had a written you earlier about the significant hail that we saw on our farm this season as this system of thunderstorms came across the country and it was like softball size hail. We’re seeing a lot of extreme weather. As long as USDA has been, um, and National Weather Service have been monitoring this type of thing…is what we’re seeing in terms of extreme weather in over the last few years.. is this unusual from a data standpoint?
Mark: I don’t know in terms of severe weather and it’s, it’s hard to make a, it’s hard to make a call on severe weather weather. There was more observations there, more people reporting, things like that. So I don’t know if you could say anything about just the number of hailstorms. I don’t know if that’s actually increased or if that’s just a sign that the data is better. Now some of the things that we’ve seen agriculturally in the West are unique. We monitor one of the networks that USDA maintains. It’s the Snow Tell Network, so we have snow observations and one of the things that we’re witnessing in the western United States is the snowpack is melting earlier. Uh, we’re getting rain, uh, at times of year at elevations where you would expect snow like in the Sierras recently. We saw that. So that is something that’s a bit disconcerting and obviously, you know, we know what’s happening in the arctic with the polar ice cap. We know about the ridging in the Pacific because of the sea surface temperatures being, you know the northern Pacific blob.
Lindsey: And remind us about the northern Pacific blob.
Mark: Yeah. That. Well, yeah, I’m sorry. There was a pool of above normal sea surface temperatures in the northern Pacific that was attributed to ridging over the western part of the United States in the Pacific. They called it the blob because if you look on a sea surface temperature anomaly map, it just looked like a red blob on the map. Meteorologists and climatologists not being the most clever people in the world…they just called it the blob.
Lindsey: How does the current drought in the southwest, how long has this current drought been going on and how does it compare with past droughts on record?
Mark: Looking back at the history of the drought monitor, so going back to about 2000, um, the southwest has had periods of drought, uh, almost nonstop. If you were to go to the, uh, the drought monitor page, which is droughtmonitoror.unl.edu. You can see a time series for the states. The United States itself has had, you know, some percentage of drought, uh, just about through the entirety. There’s always someplace in drought. If you were to look at individual states, this year’s drought, for example, in Arizona, really doesn’t look as bad as it did say in 2002, 2003. Um, but they’ve had spikes of drought also in the early 2000’s, 2011, 2012. There was another spike of a, you know, fairly significant drought in 2013. So they, they have been experiencing problems really for, you know, a good part of the last two decades.
Lindsey: But this a year in the southwest, this is one of the hottest years on record. Is that, is that correct?
Mark: Yes. See that’s another thing because we seem to be setting a record just about every month.
Lindsey: Right. It’s not good news.
Mark: Yeah it’s really hard to compare this with past years because it feels like the playing field keeps changing on us.
Lindsey: And how does drought differ in different parts of the US?
Mark: Well, I mean, starting, starting in the southwest sort of as an example, uh, you’ve got, uh, a climate that’s already arid. As a matter of fact, the infrastructure in general in the southwest is to retain water here in the east and northeast where we, we get 40 or more inches of rain. The infrastructure is designed to move water away from population centers. You know, we’ve got, we’ve got drainage ditches, we’ve got storm drains. It’s like get the water the heck away from us so we don’t get swamped. So there’s that. Um, now if you look at, say the corn belt, you know, parts of the south western corn belt had a drought this year, um, Missouri and eastern part of Kansas that came right when they’re trying to grow their corn and soybeans. So the combination of the dryness and the, you know, the 95 degree days that they had took a big bite out of their agricultural production. However, they can recover. I mean, they can recover from that if they have a wetter than normal winter, they can rebuild their moisture supplies going into next growing season. Um, Missouri has also experienced flooding, so they’re one of those unique parts of the country where they can have drought that impacts their ag production, but they can also have severe flooding that can impact their drought production. I mean, we had, you know, the big drought of 1988 in the midwest. It was one of the more famous droughts before 2012. It was one of the more famous droughts. And then five years later they had the floods of 1993, so within just a few years they went from a horrendous drought to horrendous flooding.
Lindsey: Yeah. And so the 20, the 2012 drought had a significant impact on um, corn yields and soybean yields. Can you, can you speak to that and how sort of where that ranks among, among drought conditions?
Mark: Um, you know, people, they always keep going back to the dust bowl years of the thirties and you know, the droughts in the 1950’s. So depending on the indices that you look at it, it was ranked up there with some of the worst droughts that producers had seen in the United States. One of the good things is when you’re looking at comparing these types of phenomena, uh, historically back in the thirties, we didn’t have the soil conservation techniques that we do now. I mean you still get dust storms in severe events, but you know, you don’t see the loss of top soil farming practices…you need to have cover crops and you need to, uh, you know, maybe use less tillage in certain parts of the country to, to prevent disasters like that from occurring again. So you know, we don’t see the severe impacts that we did back in the 1930s.
Lindsey: So farmers are, are more well prepared for I guess these, these severe droughts. And are those farming practices, do they have an impact also on the weather?
Mark: Um, you know, that’s difficult to say. I mean, I’ve actually seen studies where, you know, rainfall does have an imprint or a footprint rather. If you have rain over an area, then depending on the time of year and the types of crops, you can actually see the transpiration after a, after a rain event. And um, you know, and I, I have seen research showing that, you know, that added moisture does fuel summer storms. So it, so it is possible. I mean, if you have, again, if you’ve got bare soils or the water’s running off, um, you know, you’ve reduced the ability for it to be reintroduced into the atmosphere. So that is, that is a possibility.
Lindsey: I see. Interesting. So across the country right now, what are, what are the patterns that we’re seeing that are going to have an impact on how well farmers are doing in 2018?
Mark: Actually, if you take away the drought that they had in the southwestern portion of the corn belt, most states had a pretty good year given the latest outlook from USDa, it wasn’t a bad year. Now one of the things that we did see that sort of help things out was we had a relatively mild July for the corn belt. Now, what we hope to see is, is sort of maybe some good finishing rains or immature soybeans, this the eight to 14 day outlook issued by CPC which goes through the 10th of September, is calling for near to above normal rainfall. So the next week or so it does look favorable or finishing up in some of the later planted corn and soybeans.
Lindsey: How many, how many crops does your office track for the United States?
Mark: My office works with the National AG Statistic Service. They’re the ones responsible for monitoring or, or I guess keeping estimates of crop production in the United States. We’re more, uh, responsible for the international production and then we work very closely with foreign ag service and Economic Research Service to come up with a global supply and demand balance sheet if you will, you know, looking at, looking at yields, but also looking at production, looking at ending stocks, et Cetera. So it’s a, there’s a lot of people working on this to try to come up with a global balance.
Lindsey: The Global Balance, what is the value of that information?
Mark: Well, I, I just real quick, knowing what the global situation looks like helps our farmers. It helps us to target foreign markets and it helps us to know who our competitors are and how they’re doing.
Lindsey: I see. I assume it’s also used for the evaluation of crop futures.
Mark: Right. That will, that will be a, a sort of an end result to the work that we do. Um, you know, the price is sort of settled. I mean we do a price estimate but the market really determines what the price is going to be.
Lindsey: I’m wondering just in general, how important do you think it is for a given farm to have that sort of a personalized weather forecast or to have a weather station? Because the weather underground, I know, you can connect your weather station in. Is that a good thing for farmers to consider doing?
Mark: Well, absolutely. Well first of all knowledgeable of your climate. Just to know what the, what the expectations are for given times a year, the length, if you want to become a farmer or start farming a different crop, uh, being aware of what the growing season length is, you know, knowing when the first autumn freeze and the last spring freezes is, is vital for anything that you’re trying to grow. Going to a place like the weather underground is, is really, um, I, I would think that that would be very important because they can give you more of a focused forecast, um, and give you some products to work with. Um, there was, there was some other sites that will give you other models to look at . Tropical tidbits is one that I look at for international areas, but they have a lot of the other models like the euro model along with the, the gfs, which is the American model. Um, so that’s very, I mean, that’s very important. If you’re looking at something like a hailstorm, that’s, that’s pretty difficult. That’s a very, that can be a very isolated phenomena. So something like that is, is very rare. And I don’t know that anybody would be able to say, hey, you’re going to have a hailstorm tonight. Maybe if you, if you look at the weather too closely, it might drive you crazy.
Lindsey: Well, I know it drives my husband Ben crazy, but it’s part of being a farmer, understanding the weather. It couldn’t be more important. And i wonder, as you are predicting, most of your calculations I assume are related to precipitation and to temperatures and these environmental factors. Is disease..disease is one thing that we talk a lot about as we’re seeing different sorts of pressures as we have longer warm seasons in the northeast, in our region. Is disease pressure something that you’re also… how is that shifting pattern being monitored by the agency?
Mark: For example, if we see the weather has been very wet somewhere, um, it’s sort of in the back of our mind that there could be disease pressure, but that’s usually a local phenomenon. Um, and I’ll give you one example internationally, uh, Brazil’s soy beans got hit, I’m going to say about… it was over 10 years ago by now, but they got hit by a rust and that surprised us. So we don’t look at, say, a very wet weather pattern and say, “well we’re going to reduce the yield by this much because there’s probably going to be disease.”
Lindsey: Well mark, thank you so much for this this time. It’s been really interesting to learn about what you do as the chief meteorologist and how some of these weather patterns are shifting and changing across the country. Sometimes, we’ll literally be standing there and Ben will be looking at his phone at the NOAA predictions in the radar and I’ll be like, pointing to the cloud and saying, “I think it’s going to rain,” you know, one of these situations. And you kind of need both, right? So I feel like there is a skill that needs to be–
Mark: Yeah, I was going to say.. you can’t tell many farmers about the weather. They’re telling you about the weather.
Lindsey: Right. We care a lot about it. It’s absolutely, absolutely true. Great. Well thank you so much for your time and um, I hope we can speak again. Mark, thank you so much.
Mark: You’re welcome.
Lindsey: All right, talk to you soon. Bye-bye!
Lindsey: Next week, we are going to hear from Mike Nolan. Mike’s one of the leaders of our Four Corners Farmers and Ranchers Coalition in Colorado, and his farm is deep in drought. He will tell us how the season is going and his campaign that started over some beers, in New Mexico, to get the US Department of Agriculture to help smaller scale producers. You can now find and subscribe to this podcast on Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you have a minute, please review us on iTunes and tell us how we’re doing. Thanks to Hannah Beal to editing, Radio Kingston, and the whole team at the National Young Farmers Coalition.