MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Some call it weather whiplash. In the last three years, farmers in the Midwest have faced flooding, then record-setting drought, and now flooding again.
Here's Peggy Lowe of member station KCUR.
PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: There's plenty of work for everyone at the Webber family farm in central Missouri, where just 60 percent of the 4,000 acres of row crops are planted. Chris Webber is directing the five-man operation from the cab of his John Deere tractor, while he's planting soybeans.
CHRIS WEBBER: Smallwood to Justin?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
WEBBER: Yeah, he just won't go and eat lunch before you go over there.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do I need to go get grandpa?
WEBBER: Yeah, I'd say so.
LOWE: Chris's son Justin and his grandfather grab a quick lunch, temporarily shutting down two tractors. A nephew is planting corn a few miles away. And Chris's brother is working in other fields. The deadline for planting is here and the Webbers have been anxious about the weather.
WEBBER: It's just too wet. We've pulled in the fields and tractors are spinning. It's just muddy.
LOWE: These weather extremes have even old hands like Chris Webber shaking his head. Last year, in this area, Audrain County, Missouri, was devastated by the drought, racking up nearly $61 million in crop insurance payouts. That's one of the highest in the country, rivaled by just a few counties in Illinois. This year, this county is not in drought, same is true for much of the Midwest, according to the U.S. drought monitor.
Now frustrated farmers in Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa post pictures of flooded fields and stuck tractors on Twitter, changing the hash tag Plant 13 to No Plant 13. But eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and the Texas Panhandle are still in extreme drought.
JEFF MASTERS: No, I don't see any from the pattern that we've had over about the last month or two - very wet over the central U.S. and eastern U.S., and very dry over the West. There is just going to be a very sharp dividing line. It's going to be the haves and the have-nots right next to each other.
LOWE: That's Jeff Masters, a meteorologist with the Weather Underground website, who coined the term Weather Whiplash.
MASTERS: And it's a term I'm going to be using a lot in the coming years, I think, because the jet stream patterns that we're familiar with have changed in the last few years. They've slowed down, exposing us to longer periods of extreme weather and they've gotten more extreme.
LOWE: Research is ongoing, but Masters says the jet stream patterns may have changed because the polar regions are warming faster than those around the equator.
Brian Fuchs, of the U.S. Drought Monitor, says the extremes have led to a different kind of drought.
BRIAN FUCHS: We've seen drought jump around, where typically we identify drought as a slow, creeping type of phenomena that takes time to develop and takes time to improve. And last summer was more of a flash drought, where we saw this drought rapidly develop and rapidly intensify.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR)
LOWE: Back in central Missouri, farmer Chris Webber's tractor idles as he gets out to check another wet field. When he is not worried about all the rain, he's still worried about the potential lack of it.
WEBBER: The drought is over at the moment. But in Missouri, or in this area, we tend to say that 10 days to two weeks after, we can be in a drought again. That's how fast it can get back to dry.
LOWE: So farmers here are again watching the skies and also Capitol Hill, where the Senate just passed its version of the Farm Bill. Next up is what's expected to be a heated debate in the House, where the ideological extremes can rival the Midwestern weather.
For NPR News, I'm Peggy Lowe.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.