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A changing climate will cost Kansas farmers millions in future harvests

A center pivot irrigates corn field in Kansas.
Chris Neal
Kansas News Service
A center pivot irrigates corn field in Kansas.

A new-found link between increasing heat and drought means climate change-related impacts to Kansas crops could be double what was expected.

WICHITA, Kansas — Increased heat and drought driven by climate change could cost Kansas corn and soy growers tens of millions of dollars a year in yield losses by the end of the century.

A new study from Columbia University concluded that corn and soybean yields in Kansas will drop by as much as 20% to 30%. But Kansas corn growers hope that better technology and research into drought-resistant varieties will offset potentially disastrous results.

The study looked beyond just the impacts of increasing temperatures, which is fairly well documented, and found where those higher temperatures also led to drier conditions.

“This is kind of a new risk we’ve uncovered,” said Corey Lesk, the lead author of the paper. “And it kind of adds up on top of the impact of warming itself.”

When analyzed together, the link between hot and dry conditions could cut corn and soybean yields by 5% worldwide compared to looking at the impacts of temperature increases alone.

In Kansas, where the coupling of higher temperatures and worse drought is expected to increase, the impact on corn and soybean harvests will be double what was previously expected.

Lesk and a team of researchers looked at historical records of crop yield and temperatures. They then made a separate map to look at moisture conditions over the same time period. The scientists found that places that were both hot and dry appear doomed to lose more of their ability to grow crops.

They then used climate models to project their findings into the future.

“The worst impact of warmer temperatures on those crop yields occurred in places where those couplings were the strongest,” Lesk said.

Corn is a $5 billion industry for Kansas. Decreased yields of that magnitude would cost some parts of the state as much as $40 million a year.

Greg Krissek, the CEO of Kansas Corn which represents corn growers and promotes the industry, said it’s already adapting to the changing climate and plans to use technology to limit future damage.

“We’ve got technology in the corn plant that is much more drought tolerant today than it certainly was 15 or 20 years ago,” he said.

He said whether it’s a better corn variety or irrigation upgrades that improve efficiency, technological advancements will prevent Kansas corn growers from experiencing the worst-case climate scenarios.

It’s helped so much already that in the past 15 years non-irrigated acres of corn in Kansas have increased more than irrigated.

“Kansas is very well placed to weather something like what this study might project because we’re already used to doing that,” Krissek said.

The paper also suggests the adoption of more sustainable agriculture practices, such as planting cover crops and no-till farming.

But ultimately, it suggests treating the problem, and not just the symptoms. That means attacking the primary cause of climate change by reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses we emit.

“If we’re worried about the impact of climate change on our crops and we really think that’s a problem, it’s got to translate to real climate policy that actually does something to reduce emissions,” Leak, the researcher said.

But whatever strategies farmers ultimately adopt, they’ll have to keep the progress going if they want to continue to overcome the expected changes.

“We need to make sure that we are taking the lead on recognizing that these are potential challenges we will be facing in the future,” said Ignacio Ciampitti, professor of farming systems at Kansas State University.

He said research like the paper from Columbia, which he was not a part of, is another reminder of what’s at stake.

“We need to continue working on this,” Ciampitti said. “We cannot relax.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Brian Grimmett is a two-time Regional Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist covering energy and environment stories across the state of Kansas.