The agricultural shift in Indiana

Shifts in temperature and precipitation in Indiana are directly and indirectly affecting the growth and production of agriculture. The increase in temperature, humidity and precipitation has created a favorable environment for pests and pathogens.

With all of the specialized farms, it has made the production more susceptible to climate changes. In 2015, excess water caused five percent of the corn and soybean crops to be destroyed, which led to $300 million in losses. Seasonal April freezes resulted in the apple crops to be nearly completely destroyed in 2007 and 2012. 

I am not sure what will happen. From the 1920-70s, corn yields went up an average of one bushel/acre/year, and we thought that was going to peak,” said Jeff Burbrink, Extension Educator for the Purdue Cooperative Extension office in Elkhart County. “From 1980-2020, it’s going up 2 bushels per acre per year. I never would have guessed that.”

Indiana is third in the U.S. for soybeans production, fifth for corn production and in the top 10 for specialty crops, including blueberries, peppermints, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe, snap beans, and cucumbers. That state is also in the top 10 for other productions, including turkey, chickens, hogs, ducks, and eggs.

Agriculture is nearly five percent of the state’s gross domestic production. There are more than 56,000 farms and more than 107,000 jobs. This means that there is $31.2 billion in value through sales and $4.6 billion in exports. 

In northern Indiana, the average date for soil temperatures reaching 50 degrees has moved up from March 17-20 to March 1-3. Soybeans and corn production are expected to decrease as the temperature continues to rise. Wheat is expected to stay the same or increase as the temperature continues to rise. 

“I’m fairly confident that plant breeders can find ways to breed more tolerance into corn and beans for extreme dry weather, maybe similar to the horrible drought we had in 1988. With no water for 40-60 days at a time, few crops will survive or at least be very productive,” Burbrink said.

The temperature is expected to increase 5 to 6 degrees by mid-century and 8 to 10 degrees by late-century. Soybean yields are projected to decrease by 9 to 11 percent for non irrigated and irrigated production. Corn yield shows a 2 percent loss for every one-degree increase. Other studies show a 6 percent loss in corn yields throughout the midwest due to an increase in precipitation. 

“Soybeans are much better at adapting to heat/dry weather, and they have so many uses, it’s hard to imagine a world without them,” Burbrink said. “Corn is primarily raised for the starch, which is a complex sugar. It needs water, and lots of it.”

Farmers will learn to adapt by using the weather patterns to adjust timing and labor, while learning the effects on the crops. The frost-free season is supposed to increase 3.5 to 4.5 weeks by mid-century. This could mean that soils allow for earlier planting. 

“I think we might see a switch to some crops a little more drought tolerant, like grain sorghum, for instance. There is a lot of genetic potential for improvement in sorghum, so it might be able to replace some of what corn provides us. Dry countries, like some in Africa, tend to grow sorghum over corn,” Burbrink said.

Some specialty crops, fruit trees or vines, may not be suitable for Indiana by mid-century. These crops need between 700 to 1,300 chilling hours to break dormancy and blossom. The expected chilling hours will decrease to 45 to 65 hours by mid-century. 

The shift from crop to crop, like corn to another crop, is more difficult than seems. There would need to be a big change in infrastructure. Plus, there aren’t local buyers yet. The crops would need to be stored efficiently. 

Another infrastructure change would be drainage systems that are designed to store water in the ground. Elkhart County and some surrounding areas sit on a large, accessible aquifer, which will allow growers to irrigate more. This could cause tension between homeowners. 

There will be talk of laws and regulations, and the Great Lakes states have already started setting up legislation to prevent western areas from the biggest supply of fresh water in the world.

“I mentioned infrastructure change, but to make that happen, people will need to begin to believe it’s happening. I think there are businesses out there already planning for climate change, but a lot of farmers are not really believing it,” Burbrink said. “The younger generation does believe it more than the people that own the land and farms, so until there is a major generational change in ag, things at the farm level are going to move slowly. “

Emily Cummings, Staff Writer
Emily Cummings, Staff Writer
Written by Emily Cummings, Staff Writer

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