When Rick Kirn planted his 1,000 acres of spring wheat in May, there were no signs of a weather calamity on the horizon. Three months later, when he should have been harvesting and getting ready to sell his wheat, Kirn was staring out across vast cracked, gray, empty fields dotted with weeds and little patches of stunted wheat.
“It’s a total loss for me,” said Kirn, who operates a small family wheat farm on the Fort Peck Reservation, an area of north-eastern Montana that lies right in the heart of the extreme climatic episode. “There’s nothing to harvest.”
Kirn’s story is typical across the high plains in Montana and the Dakotas this summer, where one of the country’s most important wheat growing regions is in the grips of a crippling drought that came on with hardly any warning and, experts say, is without precedent.
While much of the country’s attention in recent weeks has been on the hurricanes striking southern Texas and the Caribbean, a so-called “flash drought”, an unpredictable, sudden event brought on by sustained high temperatures and little rain, has seized a swathe of the country and left farmers with little remedy. Across Montana’s northern border and east into North Dakota, farms are turning out less wheat than last year, much of it poorer quality than normal.
Most farmers in and around the Fort Peck Reservation agree that climate change is to blame for the sudden drought and ruined crops, but that doesn’t change the fact that farmers and others who make their living off of agriculture are now subject to shifting political winds and strained debate around the issue.
“This is unprecedented,” says Tanja Fransen of the National Weather Service in Glasgow, a larger city just up the road from Fort Peck. “This is as dry as it’s been in recorded history and some of our recording stations have 100 years of data. A lot of people try to compare this to previous years, but really, you just can’t.”
Adnan Akyuz, the state climatologist for North Dakota describes the unusual draught in terms that are reminiscent of descriptions of deluge brought on by Hurricane Harvey. “It is safe to say, we got into it very fast, which caught us off guard and we didn’t know it was going to continue,” he says.
Akyuz said that March through July was the third-driest five-months on record in North Dakota since 1895, a dire situation impossible to predict given traditional methods of weighing snowpack with average seasonal temperatures to monitor for potential drought. But in the future, unpredictable may be the best prediction.
“We should expect these swings and incorporate these swings into our management plans,” said Akyuz.