Topsoil got a wet boost last fall, Sims says, but subsoil is an entirely different story.
You don’t need to be a soil scientist or a climatologist – in other words, an expert - to conclude that, despite all this snow of late, drought conditions persist in and around Crooking, and throughout the upper Midwest.
Albert Sims, director of the Northwest Research at Outreach Center at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, is an expert who can rattle off all kinds of scientific data and other numbers to further illustrate the presence of the drought. But there are simpler, more plain-spoken anecdotes that just about anyone can relate to, that further make the case.
“You hear of people who have been running sump pumps almost constantly for 15 years, and last year their pumps didn’t run,” Sims said in his office late last week. “You hear about people who dig holes, before, they’d dig and it would fill with water. Now, they’re down a dozen feet and the ground just crumbles. The frost depth is around 40 inches, but without moisture, even though it’s frozen, when you break it, it just crumbles.
“So we’re dry, that’s the bottom line,” Sims continued. “We’re as worried as everyone else. If we have a repeat this summer of last summer, we’re in trouble.”
Specifically, when it comes to the farmers that he deals with, Sims said another parched summer could be particularly costly. “We’re seeing nutrient deficiencies we’ve never seen before,” he explained. The theory is that most nutrients are water-soluble, so when the water moves, the nutrients move with it. “So the plants have a hard time getting at those nutrients,” Sims said. “Obviously, as a grower, you don’t want that.”
But, despite a bone-dry summer of 2012, crops throughout the region were, in Sims’ view, “tremendous,” for the most part. So what gives?
“The only place the plants could have gotten to the water is by going down deeper than they’ve had to go in a long, long time,” Sims explained. “They literally sucked the water out of the soil profile much deeper than we’ve had to consider in a long time. Physiologically, a plant can’t and won’t grow through dry soil; it needs some moisture to get through. But last year the plants sucked the water out of the soil profile; the roots went down just deep enough to access it. Now that water’s gone.”
A significant rain event totaling around 3 inches last October prior to freeze-up helped big time, providing a little bit of “soil recharge” and “reserve moisture” going into the 2013 growing season. But, even so, Sims said farmers are going to have to have a little luck on their side during the 2013 growing season, if they’re going to have a good crop. Timely rainfalls are needed, but not rain events that are so heavy that farmers can’t get into their fields. “We don’t need a five or six inch rain because then no one can farm,” he said. “We need incredibly timely rains at different points during the growing season.”
Currently, compared to 30-year averages, Sims said, the region is approximately one full year’s precipitation short of where it should be, or around 13 ½ inches below where it should be. “In 2011, we had around 15 ½ inches of water, in 2012, we had around 16. The 30-year average is around 22 ½,” he explained. “So in two years, we’ve accumulated a significant moisture deficit.”
But what about all the snow?
Russ Severson of the University of Minnesota Extension Service recalls from a climatology course he took that approximately 90 percent of the moisture content in the snow, once the snow melts, will run-off due to the frozen soil, or evaporate during the melting process. The faster the melt, he said, the less moisture that will actually soak into the ground.
Sims agrees. James Cameron at NWROC took a recent core sample from 18 inches of the snowpack, and it contained 2.6 inches of actual water. If 10 percent of that actually soaks into the ground during the melt, it adds up to about a quarter inch, Sims said. “People see all these huge piles of snow in town and think, ‘Wow,’ but you go out into the fields, there are no big piles,” he said.
He’s heard concerns from property owners at area lakes, especially Maple Lake, which is shallow to begin with. All this snow will likely boost the lake’s level when it melts, Sims said, which will further prove that water from the melting snow isn’t soaking into the ground.
So is there an “ideal melt” that will allow the most water to soak into the ground? “Well, the ideal melt for people in the flood plain is one that doesn’t result in a flood,” Sims said. “The slower the melt, the better off we’re all going to be. But if it’s a slower melt, from the perspective of the people I work with, the longer it is until they can get into their fields. Obviously, we’d hate to see the snow all go in a few days, but we’d prefer that it’s not strung out over several weeks, either.”
So what’s worse?
So what’s worse? Too wet, or too dry?
Too dry, Sims said.
“You can grow nothing without water,” he said. “You have no life whatsoever without water.”
Too much water isn’t preferable, either, as everyone in the region knows after enduring around two decades that climatologists refer to as the “wet cycle.” But even if things are too wet, some crops will grow, Sims said. “The worst of two very bad situations? It’s drought,” he added. “If I had to pick one, too dry is the one you really don’t want.”
Sims hopes his views still carry some clout. He can’t help but chuckle as he recalls his prognosis last summer, when it became clear growers in the region were in for an extremely dry season. In a television news interview, Sims said if the crops didn’t get some rain in the next few days, farmers were in for a “pending disaster.” Well, the rains didn’t come, the roots did some heroic work in going down further than maybe they ever have to find water, and record wheat yields were prevalent throughout the Red River Valley. “People teased me about that, but I agree with the growers who bet that we can’t pull that off twice,” Sims said. “This is one instance where I hope I’m wrong.”