Weather and policy inaction top 2023 for rural America

Market to Market | Clip
Dec 29, 2023 | 8 min

Major outbreaks in storms, drought and heat headlined the year. So too, was a lack of progress on a Farm Bill among other items on the agenda for Congress. 


Multiple atmospheric rivers came ashore at the beginning of 2023, pummeling the drought-stricken West.  The coastal areas of California were slammed by high winds and rain as falling trees knocked out power lines in Monterey County.  Portions of northern California would receive more than 10 inches of rain across one weekend in January. The Central Valley was also hit with up to 12 inches of rain - stranding motorists and turning properties into islands. 

 After this wet start to the year, most of the Golden State emerged from drought and stayed that way for the bulk of 2023. 

January had an above average number of tornado watches and warnings. Over the next 11 months, 82 lives were taken by tornadoes in the U.S., just above the 30-year average of 70.

A continued dry pattern in cattle grazing regions of the United States forced farmers and ranchers to cut their animal numbers, reducing the size of the national cattle herd to levels not seen since 1962.

Reduced forage quality was a big reason why producers were sending heifers and breeding stock to slaughter.  

Derrell Peel Oklahoma State University: “Well, we've clearly liquidated the herd. In fact, if you look again at the USDA numbers nationwide, we lost over a million head of cows last year, which is the biggest in terms of absolute numbers, the biggest year over year decrease in the beef cow herd since like 1986.“

Wildfires broke out in Louisiana as dry conditions gripped the region beginning in June. By August, scarred land masses like this were common as more than 600 wildfires were reported. 

High temperatures threw a heavy coat over much of the West.  A stifling heat dome over Phoenix, Arizona finally broke after a 31-day streak with temps nearing 110-degrees. 

The Grain Belt wasn’t immune from high temperatures either, leading the central portion of the U.S. in the charge towards drought status. 

One of the hottest weeks in late August featured triple-digit temperatures and heat indexes that hit 22 states putting more than 126 million people under several days of heat warnings.  

For the second straight year, the Mississippi River dropped to record lows. By October, transport from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico had slowed to a crawl at the   peak of the grain transport season. 

The year started with inflation around 6.5 percent, reduced by half at year’s end. 

Congress held hearings on many topics including inflation, but little legislation was completed in 2023.

This House Agriculture Committee’s hearing in March focused on the rising cost of agricultural inputs, and where the 2023 Farm Bill could help provide certainty to America’s farmers.

Corey Rosenbusch, The Fertilizer Institute: “So prices have come down in some cases half the cost of what they were last year. 

At that time, prospects for a new Farm Bill were still high. But changes in congressional leadership found legislators on a budget precipice.  They changed focus from passing a Farm Bill to putting a continuing resolution in place to keep the government open until mid-January of 2024. 

By November, a stopgap spending bill was approved with language extending the 2018 Farm Bill  for one year. The continuation means that current government farm safety nets and food assistance programs will be covered well into the 2024 crop year. 

In August, the 18-month old war between Russia and Ukraine continued to rage. A deal brokered between the two countries by the U.N. and Turkey providing protection for ships carrying Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea was broken by Russia.   

Water was at the forefront of several legal fights in 2023. 

The Supreme Court greatly reduced the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the Clean Water Act. The Court held the Act covers only wetlands “with a continuous surface connection” to those waters, and that the Agency is not allowed to police discharges into some wetlands, even if they are close to other bodies of water.

The new WOTUS definition from the Biden EPA arrived in early September, calling for unpermitted development to be allowed in many wetland areas across the country.

The legal battles continued as small refinery exemptions played out in lower courts with a ruling saying the EPA had invoked an “impermissibly retroactive” standard to hold a group of refineries to the terms of the RFS.

The case centered on the EPA’s denial of six small refinery exemptions in June of 2022. The officials with those refineries argued to the court that they applied for the waivers based on previous EPA practices. The Biden Administration denied those waivers in an attempt to put more ethanol in the gas tanks of American drivers. 

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, upheld California’s right to require pork sold in the state to meet minimum humane standards under Proposition 12. The measure was originally passed by California voters in November of 2018 with 63 percent support, and has been challenged by industry groups as violating the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Multiple courts had disagreed and the high court put an end to the legal fight.

A similar law was under scrutiny in Massachusetts. Question 3, which imposes certain spacing requirements  for sows, bans the sale of pork that doesn’t comply with the rules. Passed in 2016, it was supposed to take effect 30-days after the Prop 12 decision. Enforcement of the measure remains in limbo.

Governing bodies also had their say on carbon pipeline construction projects in 2023. 

In August, The South Dakota Public Utilities Board unanimously voted to deny Navigator CO2 Venture’s application for construction of a CO2 pipeline. The basis for the denial was the application did not satisfy multiple required criteria. The proposed pipeline would have transported CO2 from five ethanol plants in South Dakota for sequestration underground in Illinois. 

Summit Carbon Solutions Midwest Carbon Express was also denied permits in North Dakota. The prospective operators of the nearly 2,000 mile long pipeline vow to refile their petition after making changes called for in the ruling. 

Highly Pathogenic Aviation Influenza returned to the U.S. in large numbers.  More than 210 commercial operations across the country have been devastated by the virus. Nationwide producers lost more than 50 million birds  in 2023. 

Sec. Mike Naig, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship: “This is a constant threat, as is African swine fever, as is foot and mouth disease. That is how we have to think of high path avian influenza. That's the mindset that our producers have to have. That's the level of readiness that we have to maintain here and at USDA is that it could happen literally now at any time. 

Wholesale egg prices topped $5 per dozen to start the new year on significant reduction in egg-laying flocks because of Avian Flu. By month’s end the price had dropped to below $2 per dozen.

For Market to Market, I’m David Miller.