David Friedberg says, “In parts of Kansas, farmers should simply not be growing corn.” Illustration by Andrew Zbihly.
It was nearly impossible to drive the back roads of southern Indiana this summer without being lulled into a trance by the monotonous perfection of the cornstalks. They lined every route, forming a canopy that stretched for miles, strong, straight, and taller than any Hoosier. In late August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture stated publicly what the growers had known for weeks: this year’s crop would almost certainly be the largest in American history.
A year ago, that kind of bounty would have seemed unimaginable. In 2012, drought struck nearly eighty per cent of the nation’s farmland, and the growing season was the hottest and driest in decades. Perhaps worse, over the past half century there has been a sharp, sustained increase in the number of what farmers call “toad stranglers”—days with more than three inches of rain. That kind of weather is death to corn and soybeans, the country’s biggest crops. Last year’s harvest was a catastrophe. “Just take a look at this,” Doug Theobald, who lives about an hour south of Indianapolis, said when I met him on his farm one morning this summer. Theobald and his family raise waxy corn, which is used for cornstarch and other thickeners. He handed me two snapshots of a cornfield. The first, taken on July 5, 2012, looked as if it had been lifted from a documentary about the Dust Bowl: withered gray stalks barely reached waist high. In the second photo, taken exactly one year later, verdant plants filled the frame. “Last year was the worst corn harvest in a century,” he said. “Barring a freak storm, our worst acre this year will bring in more corn than our best did last year. That has never happened before.”
Unpredictable weather is hardly rare, or new. For thousands of years, floods, droughts, tornadoes, heat waves, and early frosts have been agriculture’s unyielding enemies. But even the most sophisticated farmer would have trouble planning for the vagaries of today’s climate. “If I talk to a grower for five minutes, he will say what the data also show,” Jeff Hamlin told me a few days later. “These enormous changes are hard to handle.” Hamlin, who is forty, is the director of agronomic research at the Climate Corporation, which is based in San Francisco. Thin and rangy, he was dressed in khaki Dockers and a green golf shirt embroidered with a Climate Corporation logo. Two dozen men had gathered in a vast air-conditioned barn on a farm in Palmyra, about twenty miles northwest of Louisville, to hear him explain how his company plans to help them manage extreme weather. Breakfast—bacon, eggs, ham, mountains of toast, and urns of coffee—was spread on a table next to a vintage red silage chopper and a huge pile of seed. The Climate Corporation sells weather insurance, but it is an insurance company the way Google is an encyclopedia company. The mission statement, “To help all the world’s people and businesses manage and adapt to climate change,” is an explicit echo of Google’s sweeping promise to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
If you are trying to decide whether to take an umbrella to work, the National Weather Service provides the kind of information you need. But the data, often taken from readings at local airports, are nearly useless for anyone who needs to gauge constantly changing conditions in the soil and the atmosphere. Soil type and quality can vary widely within a county, and even within a single farm field. Clay absorbs moisture far more readily than rocky soil does; the difference has profound implications for the growth of crops like corn and soybeans. Without accurate temperature and soil data, it is impossible to calculate how much moisture or sun a plant needs and how much it is likely to get.