Dry winter may mean growing problems

This winter’s “abnormally dry” conditions could cause problems for farmers trying to irrigate their soil.

Ethan Nelson

Experts say this winter’s lack of snowfall and resulting low levels of moisture could have grim implications for the upcoming growing season.

More than 60 percent of the state has two inches or less of snow cover — a phenomenon the state hasn’t seen since 2007, University of Minnesota climatology professor Mark Seeley said.

“The concern over soil dryness is real,” Seeley said.

And the state’s condition isn’t likely to improve, Department of Natural Resources climatologist Pete Boulay said, as February typically doesn’t bring much precipitation.

The U.S. Drought Monitor deemed the state “abnormally dry,” a classification that doesn’t necessarily mean long-term effects.

And there isn’t a specific reason for the dry season.

“There’s month-to-month variation in the [weather] pattern,” said Joshua Stamper, a University Extension soil, water and climate assistant professor.

Though much of the state has been drier than normal for this time of year, Boulay said, the weather should return to what it typically is this month.

But even if the snow picks up in February, farmers could still have difficulty properly irrigating soil.

The ground on the University’s St. Paul campus — where the school’s hub for agriculture operations is located — is frozen for 14 inches below the surface, which prevents moisture from getting in, Boulay said.

“Whatever [water] froze in fall is in the soil now,” he said, and might not be enough for an ideal planting season.

It’s important there’s enough moisture in the ground for plants to grow well, especially considering agriculture’s extremely large role in Minnesota’s economy, Seeley said.

“It could be a challenge for farmers who are farming in sandy soil if we don’t get some seasonal precipitation between now and planting,” Stamper said, “but it’s really too early to say.”

Associate agronomy professor Seth Naeve said the dry weather won’t likely have lasting effects. He said snow generally doesn’t have much water in it anyway, and when the ground is frozen, snowmelt doesn’t moisturize the soil well.

Planting season tends to suffer more in cases of too much moisture than when drought occurs, Naeve said.

Usually, he said, there’s enough rainfall in the spring to resuscitate the soil, and an early, dry spring generally doesn’t harm planting.

And in fact, Naeve said, dry soil can sometimes be good for farming because wet soil warms more slowly.