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'Slow evolving crisis': Extreme weather's impact on wheat yields in Kansas

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Posted at 5:00 PM, Apr 22, 2024

MANHATTAN, Kan. — Most Americans love going for a pint at the end of a workday or treating themselves to the pastry in the break room. An average person in the U.S. consumes about 132 pounds of wheat flour per year.

But what if extreme weather and climate changes across the country are threatening one of the country’s favorite, necessary sources of grain?

In order to better understand the issue, learn about the long-term implications and explore on-going solutions in wheat production, we talked to:

  • A Kansas wheat farmer
  • An agronomy professor
  • A local consumer
  • A wheat breeder working to develop stronger varieties
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Kansas wheat farmer

For four generations, the Guettermans have been fighting unpredictable weather. But they have to — growing corn, soybeans and wheat is their livelihood.

“Eastern Kansas, our weather is always extreme. Always has been,” Nick Guetterman said. “If you have a bad weather event that takes yield off, it not only affects your checkbook, but it affects you emotionally.”

Long-term sustainability means learning to work with Mother Nature. That is why on much of their land, they are proactively experimenting and adapting their practices.

“What don’t we know now that we will know in 50 years that’s gonna make us more resilient?” Guetterman said.

Guetterman said two changes have really helped his wheat against extreme weather: cover cropping and no tilling.

Cover cropping is when farmers plant other crops in place of their usual ones during their off-season. The idea is to make sure the soil is always being used.

“I have to eat year-round, personally, I can’t just eat six months out of the year, so you gotta feed the soil, the living plant. Soil is meant to have a living plant, or a living root all the time,” Guetterman said.

No tilling is when farmers only make small slits to plant the seeds. It keeps the soil compacted and covered, which builds soil structure and fights against erosion in case of high precipitation.

And to top it all off, poultry litter has been a great source of natural fertilizer.

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Agronomy professor

Dr. Chuck Rice is a university-distinguished professor of soil microbiology at Kansas State University.

He said evidence shows climate change has accelerated in the last 40 years. Compounded extreme weather events are projected to increase in intensity, frequency and duration.

“This has been a slow-evolving crisis,” Rice said. “More heavy precipitation could come in form of snow or rain, or more droughts.”

Rice and his cohorts at K-State published a study quantifying the negative impacts of climate change on wheat production. They found that hot, dry, windy events led to a 4% yield reduction per 10 hours of extreme weather.

“I was hearing two or three bushels per acre yield, when you normally would get 50 or 60,” Rice said.

According to researchers at K-State, extreme weather due to climate change will only exacerbate the issue in years to come.

Right now, more than 15,000 Kansas farmers produce an average of 334 million bushels of wheat a year. Because of this, experts like Rice are concerned not only about sustainability but also the greater trickle-down effect on Kansas' economy.

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Local consumer

When everything you sell is made from scratch, you care a whole lot about the quality, price and accessibility of its main ingredient.

“What’s worse than the price increase is the availability and scarcity of products. Because when you look at a core product like flour, if that becomes scarce, you’ve got panic, you’ve got true pain being felt,” said Best Regards Bakery & Cafe owner Robert Duensing.

Duensing is constantly dancing with the price and availability of wheat. Compared to just three months ago, a bag of flour went up $7. Duensing said the bakery has already started making changes to menu items.

“We didn’t compromise any quality, but we did change the portion size,” Duensing said.

Going from half-an-inch slices of bread to three-eighths of an inch may not seem like much, but that cut his flour usage by about 40%.

“It’s tough, I mean it’s really tough. The worst-defending products I just quit making,” Duensing said.

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Wheat breeder

Future climate change will largely depend on the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.

But because it is difficult to control outside factors, Dr. Allan Fritz and his team at Kansas State are focused on breeding stronger crops.

Breeders focus on strengthening crops for disease resistance, yield potential, drought tolerance, heat tolerance and quality.

It takes about 11 years, from crossbreeding to releasing a new variety to Kansas farmers. So in order to produce wheat that can withstand the climate in a decade, it needs to be in his incubator now.

“I think the concern is that we could see these conditions change more rapidly and can the breeding keep up,” Fritz said.

Fritz said countries often share germplasm for breeding. The wheat he is growing is native to some of the harshest climates on the planet.

“Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, on up into Turkey into the Caspian Sea regions, some very harsh environments,” Fritz said. “We know that there are genes in those materials that will help our varieties tolerate those conditions here.”

His team releases about two varieties of wheat every three years and has heard great success from local farmers.

It is difficult to find solutions that balance the needs of local farmers and the limitations of resources and federal funding. But Kansas grows more, stores more and exports more wheat than any other state.

All parties involved agree they want to keep it that way.

“That’s one of the things I enjoy about my job is the ability to have tangible evidence that what we’re doing matters,” Fritz said.