Soil moisture back to normal, now rain hampering Illinois farmers

April 17, 2013

WBEZ/Sally Eisele
The Des Plaines River at flood level. There were flood warnings and severe storms Tuesday in many parts of the state.

It’s sprouting time across the state and farmers are breathing a sigh of relief as soil moisture in Illinois returns to normal after a year of uncertainty. Spring of 2012 was marked by arid, warm weather that led into one of the hottest summers on record and a drought that continued through the winter. Illinois farmers’ concerns about planting conditions for the spring planting season have scarcely subsided, but the forecast is better than it has been for a long time.

“Right now, we are pretty much seeing normal levels across the state, which is a lot better than what we were seeing at this time last year,” said Jennie Atkins of the Illinois State Water Survey, which monitors soil moisture daily. Above-average precipitation in January and February made up for a middling fall, and stormy weather this week can’t hurt moisture, either.

“After last year, soil moisture is a very precious commodity in the state,” said John Hawkins of the Illinois Farm Bureau.

But there’s also a downside to the influx of rain. There were flood warnings and severe storms in parts of Illinois Tuesday, and now many farmers have to wait for warmer, drier weather to plant.

“When you have a lot of rain and flood it definitely affects the larger crop productions,” said Toni Anderson, the organizer of Sacred Keepers Sustainability Garden in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. “I don’t necessarily have to worry about that in the city because we need every drop we can get.”

She says the sandy soil on Martin Luther King Avenue on Chicago’s south side drains easily, and the garden’s focus on native species means they can tolerate weather extremes. But given concerns about climate change, she’s not necessarily jumping for joy about yet another swing of the weather pendulum.

“It’s refreshing and scary all at the same time,” Anderson said.