Atmospheric scientist keeps an eye on the sky for Illinois farmers
An expert on atmospheric science says farmers are constantly consuming information about the weather. This is particularly true during a difficult growing season, like the one this summer in central Illinois.
Nearly six weeks without any rain gave way to two distinct periods of steady, consistent precipitation. Farmer Dan Magaritysaid the high quality Illinois soil and those periods of rain saved the harvest.
Eric Snodgrass is the senior science fellow for Nutrien Ag Solutions, a Canadian fertilizer company. Snodgrass is based in Illinois and watched this season closely. He said weather represents the highest amount of uncertainty for growers.
“Generally speaking, after you plant the crop in the field and plan the inputs you're going to have in that field throughout the rest of the year, most everything else is up to Mother Nature,” he said. “So it comes down to a situation where we try to forecast and predict what the atmosphere is capable of doing, to either help that crop along, or give it what it needs. Which is typically, you know, moisture, of course. But also a lack of excessive heat and a lack of, you know, detrimental high impact weather.”
For example, the derecho that tore through Illinois in July 2020 flattened corn fields. Periods of drought, combined with extended periods of excessive heat, stop plants from conserving their limited supplies of water.
Fortunately, Snodgrass said, the temperatures weren’t overly hot during the period of drought this year.
“So when it did finally rain, we took a lot of that rain straight into the crop,” he said.
Predictions from scientists like Snodgrass don’t only affect the behavior of farmers, they also can have an impact on market prices.
“You see a bunch of rain coming in, you can expect bigger supply. If you see a big drought moving in, you would expect supply to drop off,” said Snodgrass. “And so they use the you know, they use the weather in a multifaceted way to kind of understand how it will ultimately affect the bottom line, which is the revenue and income that these growers have from these farms.”
Snodgrass also does work with larger weather patterns and climate. He said he can distill the effect of climate change in Illinois down to two distinct factors: wetter, larger precipitation events and higher overnight temperatures. The data Snodgrass references to make these claims is a combined 70 years of weather trends across the state. He travels the country and speaks to farmers about climate at around 120 events a year.
When speaking about a large concept like the climate, it’s important to start with the evidence, he said.
“In the state of Illinois, we've more than doubled the number of times, over the last 40-some odd years, we've more than doubled the number of times throughout a growing season that we have more than two inches of rainfall in a 24-hour time period,” said Snodgrass. “So, what that also means is we have longer stretches of drier weather, so big rainfall, stretch of dry weather, big rainfall, stretch of dry weather.”
This means generations of farmers are getting their crops planted earlier and earlier to take full advantage of the larger weather events. Snodgrass said three generations ago, you finished planting by June. Now, you’re typically aiming for mid-April.
“It's the change in the climate system, which has brought in some warmer, overnight lows, kind of pushing back frost dates a bit that's allowing this to happen,” he said. “So, what it's done is it's made the Illinois farmer more efficient.”
A close eye on the sky and an understanding of our climate is beneficial to not just Illinois farmers, but the world’s food supply. Snodgrass said Illinois produces the most of any state for soybeans and is second only to Iowa in corn.
“Illinois is mission critical to the world in its production of these two massive crops, he said. "Without us as a state, food security would be jeopardized around the world.”