Saturated soils combined with a wetter-than-usual forecast could lead to widespread flooding and another year of delayed planting for Wisconsin farmers still struggling with one of the worst growing seasons in modern history.
An abnormally wet spring led to one of the latest starts to the season in modern history, putting farmers about three weeks behind the average start, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Now an abnormally wet fall is hindering their ability to harvest the crops, said Shawn Conley, professor of agronomy at UW-Madison.
Statewide precipitation in September and October was nearly 90 percent more than normal, according to data from the Illinois-based Midwestern Regional Climate Center.
Nearly a fifth of the state’s soybean crop is still in the ground, according to a USDA report released Monday. Typically nearly all would be harvested by this point.
“Normally we’re only bad at one end of the season or the other,” Conley said. “This year we’re bad at both.”
Conley said farmers are working as fast as they can to harvest the remaining soybean crop ahead of a round of snow and rain expected to fall Tuesday night and Wednesday.
“If they don’t get it out before snow, that crop is done,” Conley said.
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To make matters worse, the wet crops will need to be dried, which could lead to logistical challenges in getting enough propane to fire the dryers. Last month, Gov. Tony Evers declared an energy emergency in order to temporarily lift some restrictions on fuel delivery drivers.
“It’s challenge after challenge this year,” said Tom Bressner, executive director of the Wisconsin Agribusiness Association.
Through the first 10 months, 2019 has been Wisconsin’s wettest year to date, according to records going back to 1895.
The 39.73 inches of precipitation that fell through October is nearly 10.6 inches more than normal and within 0.01 inch of the total precipitation in 2018, the second-wettest year on record.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts this winter will be wetter than normal across the northern plains and Upper Mississippi Valley, including Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Department of Natural Resources warns that high water levels and abnormally wet soil could result in rivers freezing above flood stage, widespread ice jams and long-term soil damage. There’s also potential for record flooding next spring and delays in getting crops planted.
DNR staff are meeting next week to prepare staff to respond to potential winter or spring flooding and is alerting dam operators to the potential for ice jams, said Tanya Lourigan, state dam safety engineer.
Not only does the forecast portend another wet spring, Conley said farmers will have to contend with ruts and soil compacted during the wet harvest, which could be made worse by their inability to plant winter cover crops.
“It might be June again,” Conley said, before farmers can begin planting next year. “It’s kind of a snowballing effect.”