Anatomy of a Rare Drought: Insights from New York Field Crop Farmers

Shannan Sweet and David Wolfe
School of Integrative Plant Science, Cornell University

Key Findings

  • The record-breaking 2016 drought affected farmers across New York State (NYS) with more severe effects in Western and Central NY than Eastern NY.
  • Crop loss estimates from a late summer survey of ~200 field crop farmers suggest that more than 70% of field crop and pasture acreage had losses greater than 30%, with some reporting nearly total crop failure.
  • Common suggestions from farmers on help they could use in dealing with future drought included better long-range weather forecasts, financial assistance to expand irrigation capacity, and more information on drought resistant crops.

An unusually low winter snow pack, followed by lower than average rainfall and higher than average temperatures during the 2016 growing season (NRCC) led to continuously worsening drought conditions throughout New York State, and record-breaking low stream flows in Western and Central NY by late July and August (Drought Monitor). New York (NY) farmers have asked if they should expect more dry summers like the one we had in 2016 in the future with climate change. The answer to that is we don’t entirely know. Climate scientists are fairly certain that the number of frost-free days will continue to increase and summers will be getting warmer, which will increase crop water demand (Horton et al. 2011; Walsh et al. 2014). Climate models are less reliable for predicting rainfall and snow, but most projections suggest that total annual precipitation will remain relatively stable in New York, with small decreases in summer months and possible increases in winter. Also, the recent trend of the rainfall we do get coming in heavy rainfall events (e.g. more than 2 inches in 48 hours) is likely to continue.This would suggest both flooding and drought will continue to challenge New York farmers, and it is possible that more severe short-term droughts in summer could increase in frequency. Given these projected impacts, we surveyed NY farmers throughout August and September (Drought Survey) so as to better understand how farmers were affected by the 2016 drought and if they are able to cope with drought risk. The survey was distributed online and in paper format with the help of Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Farm Bureau. Of the approximately 240 farmers that responded to the survey, 183 of those were field crop farmers from every county in Western NY, and several agricultural counties in Eastern NY (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Drought survey responses by county. New York State number of farms map (Source: 2012 USDA NASS, ESRI – 12-M249), where darker green colors indicate a greater number of farms. Red dots indicate counties where field crop farmers responded to the survey. The dotted line delineates two regions (WNY = Western NY and ENY = Eastern NY). Counties in WNY were those designated as “national disaster areas” due to the drought.


Drought Impact

Fig. 2. Percent of respondents that estimated field crop yield losses within certain percent ranges. Forages include hay, grasses, and alfalfa. Data is averaged across NY.

Across the state, farmer-estimated crop losses for forages, pasture, soybeans, field corn, and small grains were 41%, 42%, 33%, 31%, and 17%, respectively. Figure 2 illustrates that estimated losses of more than 30% were reported for many field crops, and some forage and soybean farms reported losses above 90%. When asked what most limited field crop farmers’ ability to maintain yields, 37% said limited water supply, 25% said inadequate irrigation equipment, and 16% said poor soil water holding capacity (data not shown). Of the 22% who reported that other factors most limited their ability to maintain yields, several mentioned: lack of time and labor, excessively hot temperatures and high solar radiation, and being completely unprepared for needing to irrigate. Additional comments from farmers related to the effect of the drought included statements about: extra costs associated with buying hay, and having to sell cattle due to an inability to keep them watered and fed. Several farmers indicated factors that helped them get through the drought, including: cover cropping, no-till farming, increased soil health, and improved grazing management. The drought impact was so severe in Western NY (WNY) that the USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA) declared most counties in this region “natural disaster areas” in August of 2016, and eligible for some financial relief in the form of low-cost loans (FSA). The more severely drought stricken field crop farms in WNY reported higher crop loss compared to Eastern NY (ENY) (Table 1). A vast majority of field crop farmers in WNY estimated the overall economic impact to be “moderate’’ to “severe” and, though many farmers in ENY also felt a substantial economic blow, about half categorized the impacts as “minor” or a “nuisance” with almost no economic impact (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Field crop farmer’s rating of the economic impact of the drought.



Adaptive Capacity

Field crop farmers’ responses varied when asked what they might have done differently if they had known in advance how dry this summer would be (Fig. 4). Many (37%) selected the “other” category and included suggested changes related to increasing soil organic matter and water holding capacity (e.g. cover crops and no-till), changing hay cutting regimes and increasing rotational grazing, investing in other water resources, selling or slaughtering livestock, and many others. A few farmers said they would not have done anything different if the drought could have been anticipated.

Fig. 4. Production changes field crop famers would have made if the drought could have been anticipated.

Insights for extension educators, researchers and policy makers
When asked how organizations such as Cornell Cooperative Extension, university researchers or government and non-government agencies could help them cope with future drought risk, farmers expressed interest in knowing more about:

  • Drought resistant crop varieties
  • Irrigation development and planning
  • Improving soil quality and water retention, and water saving ideas
  • Pasture rotation, silvopasture, rotational grazing, and stockpiling forage
  • How to minimize the effect of drought
  • What pests and diseases are more (or less) prevalent during a drought
  • Dealing with mental stress related to drought and climate issues

In response to that same question, farmers said they wanted more:

  • Development of online tools and better long-range forecasting
  • On-farm courses and training, and educational materials about agriculture and drought
  • Financial assistance to cover drought losses
  • Inventory of vacant farmlands for potential use
  • Financial assistance for irrigation equipment and ponds, and for soil improvement and water management
  • Crop-specific crop insurance or discontinue crop insurance which encourages growing ill-suited crops
  • Rentable and leasable irrigation equipment, and cheaper county water for agricultural use
  • Cost sharing for: cover crops and no-till supplies, and for multi-purpose ponds

This project was funded by Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and The Nature Conservancy. For more information contact Shannan Sweet: 126 Plant Science Bldg., Ithaca, NY 14853; 607 255 8641,

References and Hyperlinks
Drought Monitor –
Drought Survey –
FSA (Farm Service Agency) –
Horton R, Bader D, Tryhorn L et al. (2011). Ch. 1: Climate Risks. In: Responding to Climate Change in New York State: The ClimAID Integrated Assessment for Effective Climate Change Adaptation. New York Academy of Sciences. pp 217-254.
NRCC (Northeast Regional Climate Center) –
USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) –
Walsh J, Wuebbles D, Hayhoe et al. (2014): Ch. 2: Our Changing Climate. In: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment. U.S. Global Change Research Program, 19-67.