Drought in Dakotas Easing in Some Places, Extreme in Others

South Dakota state climatologist Laura Edwards talks to a farmer at Dakotafest in Mitchell, S.D. The region has been gripped by drought this summer, though it shows signs of easing in some places. (Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

MITCHELL, S.D. (CN) – If attendance at a drought panel discussion at Dakotafest in Mitchell, South Dakota, on Thursday is any indication, the worst of the drought gripping the state is over.

Just three people – two sound guys and one reporter – sat on the folding chairs.

“We’ll maybe have to pull a line from President Trump’s inaugural and say the crowd was huge,” Christopher Graham, extension agronomist with South Dakota State University, quipped.

According to Thursday’s update of the National Drought Monitor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, extreme drought now exists in six western counties in South Dakota – an increase. In North Dakota, parts of nearly a dozen counties are dry enough to be in exceptional drought, the highest level.

But earlier this week, two inches of rain fell on Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city. Moreover, the drought from earlier this summer in and around Mitchell is “moderate” and tapering off.

“It really depends on what part of the state we’re in,” said Sara Berg, field agronomist with South Dakota State University. “This could have to do with it raining. If it was crazy dry right here, people would show up. It’s been dry here but in the last few weeks they’ve gotten rain.”

Graham agreed, noting the ranches and other areas of forage – alfalfa, sorghum and sunflowers – out west of the Missouri River are still hurting.

“Really, the western part of the state is where it’s getting worse,” he said.

A day earlier at Dakotafest, during a panel discussion on the Farm Bill, Rep. Kristi Noem – a former farmer herself – spoke in favor of federal aid for farmers.

“It’s important to have safety nets,” Noem told the crowd.

An informal poll asking South Dakota farmers what weather phenomenon is getting worse. (Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

Meanwhile, farmers took part in an unscientific poll at the three-day festival answering the question “Which weather hazard is becoming more frequent?” A mason jar labeled “Too much moisture” contained the most corn kernels.

“[Too much water] actually fits the models of what’s supposed to be happening,” Graham said.

A 2016 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said High Plains states like South Dakota will actually face more moisture in the future due to climate change. But this summer it’s been dry.

In June, the state climatologist Laura Edwards held public meetings in drought-stressed places. Ranchers sold cattle. Farmers anticipated smaller yields. And in north-central South Dakota, church collection plates came back with less in them.

“We set up chairs for 50 people in Chamberlain,” Berg said of a meeting held in the south-central part of the state. “We had almost 80.”

But weather turns fast in the Dakotas. This month, rain has picked up in the east. Cooler than average temperatures have settled in. And contingency plans – insurance, federal drought aid, and relaxed haying and trucking regulations – have softened the blow of the drought. And while harvest yields are projected to be lower this year than last, a drought is something farmers can make sense of.

“In a drought, even if your crop fails you have options,” Berg said.

And farmers have gotten a break from other diminishing foes.

The Famous LA Racing Pigs at Dakotafest. (Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

Dust storms moved through the region. But standing behind a glass case of preserved cicadas, grasshoppers, and butterflies, Amanda Bachmann, a pesticide education and urban entomology field specialist, says they’ve so far avoided a plague of locusts of biblical proportions.

“Usually grasshoppers will follow the green,” she said.

Her colleague, extension field crop entomologist Adam Varenhorst, added:

“Some of the areas where the drought was hitting early this spring, we saw large populations [of grasshoppers]. Now we’re not seeing as many. There just wasn’t a lot of green this year.”

As the summer fades to early autumn, other common bellwethers of a decent – if not great – harvest can be seen. Earlier this week, the Mitchell Daily Republic reported that recent rains have helped secure the 275,000 ears of corn needed to redecorate the murals on the city’s famed Corn Palace later this summer.

This year’s theme: “Weather.”


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