The catastrophic drought in the US Midwest - and how the Middle East will feel its impact

Parts of the US are now the driest they have been for 1,200 years

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As Mike Lutmer examines ears of soon-to-be-harvested corn on his farm in south-west Ohio, his face turns increasingly grim.

“They are very light. They should be much wider and longer,” says Mr Lutmer, who, along with his brother, farms about 1,500 acres of soybeans, corn and hay in the rolling hills of picturesque Warren County.

The kernels on one ear of corn he holds are anything but the uniform size and shape he normally expects to see.

“It was just too dry.”

Large parts of Ohio, an important crop-producing state, have seen little substantial rainfall since July, with parts of the state experiencing “moderate drought conditions”, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System.

With food and animal feed grown by Mr Lutmer and others like him ultimately destined for export to places such as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, the drought currently hitting America's breadbasket could have global consequences.

Heavy rains in late spring this year, followed by an extended dry period that stretched through the summer to early winter, have put pay to any hopes of high harvest yields for Mr Lutmer.

“We like to have a minimum of 150 to 200 bushels of corn per acre,” he says. “If we average a little over 100 this year, we’ll probably be lucky.”

And the situation in Ohio is just the tip of the iceberg.

Politico quoted analysts as saying 80 per cent of the contiguous US is currently either in a drought or facing “unusually dry conditions”.

This is the most widespread dry spell since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began tracking drought 20 years ago.

The western US, reports suggest, is now the driest it’s been for 1,200 years.

And that has had a significant knock-on effect on food yields, not only in the US, but in the Middle East and other regions as well.

On average, the US grows about 90 million acres of corn – an area larger than Germany – every year. The USDA reports that corn yields this year in Texas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are down 27, 19 and 20 per cent, respectively, compared to 2021.

But Kansas, which borders Oklahoma, is perhaps the state worst affected by drought this year.

Record-breaking dry conditions have parched the central US state where one quarter of all US winter wheat - a crop used for producing bread and other essential foodstuffs, and which is particular important in developing countries - is harvested.

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Half of Kansas’s wheat supplies are exported.

Kansas neighbour Nebraska ranks third and fourth in corn and soybean production, respectively – the two biggest agricultural food exports to Saudi Arabia, which buys more than $1 billion in US agricultural products every year. Half the state is facing either “severe” or “extreme” drought conditions.

Last year, nearly $200 million worth of Nebraska soybeans – used to feed animals and make cooking oils – were exported to Egypt, the Midwestern state’s third-biggest importer of the crop behind China and Mexico.

About $24 million worth of Nebraska corn was exported to Saudi Arabia, and $16 million exported to Egypt and Morocco, respectively.

It’s not just grain and bean markets that have been affected.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are home to huge dairy operations that supply milk and other dairy products to countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Many of those farms rely on large volumes of hay and other animal feed from the US.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia and the UAE imported more than 750,000 metric tonnes of American alfalfa and hay. Combined, that accounted for about 20 per cent of all US exports of those products.

This year, from the months of January to August, that figure had fallen to 5 per cent, according to the Gombos Company, a California-based forage exporter.

“GCC countries face a shortage of hay and forage not only this year, but also into the future,” says Shohei Takimoto, analyst at the Japanese company Mitsui, a major trader of international grain.

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This year, demand for forage in the US has ramped up due to poor yields fuelled by a brutal drought in Texas, the country’s largest hay producer, last summer.

And reports suggest dry conditions in the Midwest are set to continue for the coming months, in large part due to the La Nina climate event, with the 2022-23 crop of wheat estimated to be among the lowest in the past 20 years.

This could lead to shortages in countries such as Yemen, the tenth-largest importer of US wheat and a country in the midst of a civil war.

“We are seeing some of the worst drought conditions,” says Dennis Todey of the Midwest Climate Hub, an agency of the US Department of Agriculture.

Mr Todey compared the current situation to the 1930s Dust Bowl phenomenon, when severe dust storms greatly damaged agriculture in the American prairies, destroying the lives and livelihoods of millions.

“If you look at the 1930s drought, we are probably similar to a couple of those years, though we are not to the length of those droughts.”

He says that what has made this year particularly bad for crop farming is that most of the Plains and the Midwest regions have faced some degree of drought throughout most of this year.

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Back in Ohio, Mike Lutmer says he has felt those effects. He typically harvests about 500 acres of high-quality hay each year, much of which is bought by local famers right out of the field.

This year has been a little different.

“We’ve actually shipped hundreds of tonnes of hay out to Texas and Oklahoma,” he says. “I’ve got some friends out there - it’s really bad right now.”

Although corn and soybean yields in many traditionally high-producing states are way down this year, that has partly been offset by higher yield returns in other states.

And while the drought’s effects on many agricultural regions continues to be a concern, experts say that, in the short term, China’s grappling with its Covid-19 response is currently of greater concern to international markets than any fallout from the US drought.

Still, the ongoing lack of rain in the US heartland, combined with drought in Argentina – the second-largest wheat producer in the southern hemisphere – and the war in Ukraine, another major global grain producer, means that the outlook for next year is far from ideal.

“Now the issue becomes how much rainfall do we get ahead of production next year,” says Todey.

“We have some very dry soils and winter wheat conditions are very poor going into the winter.”

Updated: December 16, 2022, 6:00 PM