For farmers, watching and waiting is a spring planting ritual. Climate change increases fear

SABINA, Ohio (AP) — It was just getting dark when Ross Woodruff climbed into a truck to transport soybean seeds to his brother Mark, whose planter was empty. It was the first day they were able to plant, after heavy rains two weeks earlier left much of their 20,000 acres too muddy to get equipment into the fields.

With drier conditions, Mark had been hard at work since mid-afternoon, finishing the beans in a 60-acre field before moving to another field.

“This year, given the bad weather, progress has slowed,” Ross Woodruff said. “I wouldn’t say we’re behind, but a few more rain showers and we’ll be there.”

Waiting for the weather is an old story in agriculture, but with climate change causing an increase in spring rains in the Midwest, the usual anxiety surrounding the ritual of spring planting is expected to increase with it. In Ohio, for example, farmers have lost about five days of field work in the month of April since 1995, according to Aaron Wilson, the state’s climatologist.

When farmers have to wait for the fields to dry out, the already long planting days can turn into endurance tests that last into the night. Delays in planting can affect yields if they are large enough, and the quality of crops planted in wet springs can also suffer at harvest.

“This is expected to continue to be a worsening problem,” said Dennis Todey, director of the Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub. “We need to help agriculture understand this and develop new management mechanisms to deal with it, by changing how we plant, changing when we plant, and changing what we plant.”


Experts say one consequence of climate change is that warming is pushing more water into the atmosphere, increasing rainfall. Much of the Midwest has increased spring rainfall by 5% to 15% over the past three decades, according to the federal government’s Fifth National Climate Assessment. That estimate predicted an additional 8 to 20 percent increase in the region by mid-century.

“The number of days with extremes is increasing. It is an upward trend,” said Melissa Widhalm, the regional climatologist at the Midwestern Regional Climate Center.

The Ohio Valley saw an increase in April rainfall of about a quarter inch per decade between 1980 and 2023, the most of any area in the country aside from the Southeast, according to NOAA. Southern Ohio, northern Kentucky and much of Indiana saw some of the largest increases in April rainfall in the Ohio Valley — as much as 5 to 6 inches more than normal by 2024, according to an Associated Press review of four decades of data. precipitation data from the University of Idaho.

Farmers “will need the ability to deal with a broader range of conditions,” Widhalm said.


Farms of all sizes are feeling the pressure to work as much as field conditions allow.

In April, Katy Rogers, who manages the 117-acre Teter Retreat and Organic Farm in Noblesville, Indiana, planted lettuce seedlings after sunset, long after her staff had left for the day. Like the Woodruffs, she was playing catch-up after heavy rains flooded some of her fields weeks earlier. On her small vegetable farm, several crops are planted in the spring for harvest in the summer, and other crops are planted in the summer for harvest in the fall.

“If we miss a window and go off schedule, the harvest may not happen at all,” Rogers said. “Maybe we’ll just throw those seedlings away.”

This year she canceled all Brussels sprouts plantings because the fields were unworkable for the few weeks it took to plant them, which meant a loss of $2,800 in revenue. Because of the smaller size of her operation, Rogers can plant by hand when wet fields won’t allow her tractor, but it is “extremely exhausting” work, she said.

“It’s exhausting to come out and sit in the rain that feels like it’s hitting you,” Rogers said. She said she expected to plant more in covered structures and less in fields in the future.

Ross Woodruff of Ohio says it appears that the spring days that are good for field work are becoming more frequent, coming in two- or three-day periods rather than the week-long periods he remembers during his 20 years as a farmer. During those shorter periods, the hours are long.

“We will try to keep things going around the clock if we can, if we have enough manpower,” he said.


More rain means farmers have to manage that water, which can erode soils. A 2018 study from researchers at Purdue University predicted that spring rain runoff could increase by 40% to 70% in some parts of the state.

The Woodruffs, like many larger farms, rely on tile drainage to remove excess water from the fields. These tiles are large perforated plastic pipes located about 1 meter underground that collect and drain water, usually into a canal between the fields. It’s a costly system, but one that pays for itself in crop yields, Ross Woodruff said.

But tile drainage has its drawbacks: it removes moisture from the soil no matter how much rain has fallen, and it risks leaving fields dry if summer rains don’t arrive.

Building healthy soil is critical for farmers as they adapt to increased spring rain.

Wendy Carpenter, owner of the 1.5-acre Christopher Farm in Modoc, Indiana, uses a number of sustainable farming techniques.

Like many larger farms, she plants cover crops in fields that would otherwise be bare between planting seasons, along with no-till practices. This keeps organic matter in the soil, which maintains its structure. Carpenter says her fields can handle excess water and retain some of that moisture during extremely dry spells.

This spring, she and her four-person staff were able to manually plant vegetables outside, even after about 12 inches of rain a week earlier this month. She says these practices, along with the small scale of her farm and her lack of heavy equipment, have allowed her to be a little more resilient compared to the more conventional farms around her, which had not yet started planting.

“When you get heavy rainstorms like that, everyone gets in trouble,” Carpenter said. “Those of us who actively work to increase the organic matter in our soil will make a difference in how long that water is retained.”

And crop diversity, a big part of the plan at Teter Farm, helps build resilience. Although Rogers had to forego planting one crop this spring, she still has dozens of others.

As the Woodruffs rushed to plant as darkness fell last month, Mark and Ross worked quickly to reload the planter, turn it over and place it on the next row. The planter rattled to life, the blades sinking into the ground and the tractor’s headlight marking a clear path.

Mark wouldn’t finish planting until eleven o’clock, while Ross stayed up past midnight doing office work. And they weren’t the only ones.

A little further away, another farmer was planting his field under the full moon.


Associated Press data journalist Mary Katherine Wildeman reported from Hartford, Connecticut.


Follow Joshua A. Bickel on X and Instagram.


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