Droughts, wildfire smoke clouds outlook for agriculture

Published 5:21 pm Friday, July 14, 2023

By Hannah Yang

The deepening drought and smoke from Canadian wildfires are adding to Minnesota farmers’ challenges this summer. Some worry about atmospheric conditions hurting crops and animals and also whether it’s putting farmer’s own health at risk. 

Meanwhile some debate whether the smoke may actually help as it shields already drought-stressed crops.  

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In rural New Ulm, vegetable farmer Tim Guldan harvested his produce. His family farm is tucked away, secluded by trees. Guldan and his workers sort through zucchini, radishes, potatoes and onions. Then they give the produce a good wash and place it in coolers, ready for sale at local farmers markets. 

While describing this growing season as “not too terrible,” Guldan said his soil is drying out. 

“There’s no two years the same,” he said. “We started off being almost too wet for a chunk of time, trying to get in the fields like the other farmers. But since then, we’ve had dry spells, random shots of rain here and there.”

Dry everywhere

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor update revealed Thursday that recent rainfall hasn’t been enough to relieve drought conditions statewide. It classified the entire state of Minnesota as abnormally dry or in drought. It’s the first time that’s happened in nearly two years.  

Climate scientist Mark Seely told MPR’s Morning Edition that rainfall in some parts of the state is between six and nine inches below normal.

“When you look at prospects for alleviating this, we would have to get two to three times normal rainfall for the balance of July and August, just to balance these deficits out by the end of the summer,” he said. “Which is very unrealistic.”

Smoke and haze

Drought conditions can mean more wildfires and for months people across the country have coughed their way through poor air quality because of heavy smoke coming from fires in remote areas of Canada.

This raised some debate in the farming community about the haze in the midst of drought. Guldan said it’s possible smoky conditions act as a solar filter for drought-stressed crops during hotter days and prevent moisture from the soil getting dried.

“I can’t say substantially that was the case, that it may have helped with some of the drought conditions,” he said. “But it definitely could have been a bit of a silver lining for some tough times for other people with those fires up in Canada.”

Hazy outlook for agriculture

An air quality alert covers all of Minnesota today through Saturday afternoon and possibly lingering on Sunday, as another wave of smoke from Alberta and British Columbia may push things into the unhealthy range. 

The state experienced its worst air quality on record in 2023. So far, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a record 26 air quality alerts so far this year. The Twin Cities also had the worst air quality in the country at one point. 

Farmers who are constantly outside are exposed to the air hazard. Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Thom Petersen experienced this firsthand on his own farm. 

“I have asthma, and it’s been bad,” Petersen said. “I’m just like, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ and I’ve just got this cough that I just can’t shake.”

Petersen receives phone calls from people statewide with concerns about health for animals or for people milking cows or baling hay. 

“I know it has been tougher for folks,” he said. “A lot of times, people will get out early in the morning when it gets hotter or sunny to try to get the work done. But, some of the things like hay have to be done in the afternoons. So, you just gotta take it easier.”

Farmers are also considering how smoke may affect crop yields, possibly changing development and growing time. This might also have lasting impacts on food prices and food supply in the future if heavy smoke during the growing season continues to persist. 

Agronomist and farmer Harmon Wilts of Kerkhoven said the smoky environment poses questions he’s never considered before.  He wondered what these changes in drought conditions and wildfires in the midst of changing climate mean for agriculture. 

“Farmers really want to be great stewards of the land, of the water and the air because that’s kind of how we survive,” Wilts said. “So, where I live, if I don’t have good land, I don’t take care of it, I don’t have good water, and I don’t have good air, I’m not going to be able to grow as good of a crop. It really affects my livelihood in a big way.” 

‘Do I need to worry?’

Back in New Ulm, Tim Guldan hasn’t noticed too many smoke impacts and was able to keep up this season despite dry spells. He said he does see more customers wearing masks to farmers markets because of poor air quality. 

Sometimes he wonders whether he’s being smart working in these conditions.

“There’s days where I’d get out and say, ‘all right, it’s really hazy out there,’” he said. “Do I need to worry about anything for myself, health-wise?”

Yet, even though there’s smoke coming through the region this weekend, Guldan said he doesn’t have time to be concerned. Work on the farm can’t wait, even with a poor climate.