Understanding the agricultural perspective of hailstorms

Samuel J. Childs
Colorado State University
A hailstorm wipes out a field of corn in July 2018 near Hillrose, Colo.
File photo

The High Plains hail season is once again in full swing, which means the region’s farmers and ranchers are on regular alert. Eastern Colorado has been one of the most active hail areas of the country in recent years, and weather models are telling us that as the climate warms, ingredients for damaging hailstorms — including moisture, vertical wind shear, and stronger thunderstorm updrafts — will become even more frequent.

Regardless of climate impacts, expanding population and infrastructure means there are more people and things in harm’s way. While hailstorms that impact agricultural land receive relatively less media coverage than those in urban areas, they have arguably a greater overall impact on society. A CSU study in 2012 found that Colorado agriculture contributes some $41 billion dollars to the state economy annually, yet on around 42 days per year, severe hailstorms occur over the expansive dryland farming and prairie regions on the eastern Plains, often destroying valuable crops.

With no existing research on how the agricultural sector perceives hailstorms, I conducted in-person interviews with 15 farmers and ranchers throughout eastern Colorado as part of my Ph.D. work in summer 2019. I specifically sought to reveal perceptions related to hailstorm vulnerability, severity, and warning communication. My sample had a wide range of farming experience (median of 28 years), size of operation (from a 3-acre vegetable farm to >50,000 acres), and a variety of crops and livestock, the most frequent being corn, wheat and cattle.

Each interview began with the statement “Tell me about hailstorms in eastern Colorado,” allowing the interviewees to speak freely about whatever first came to mind. The word cloud below shows the most common words of at least three letters (variants of the word ‘hail’ excluded) spoken from this prompt. Most farmers and ranchers readily shared about the damage caused by hailstorms, as well as personal memories from particular years. References to hailstone sizes such as “baseball” and “golf ball,” and agricultural terms were also prevalent.

Amplifying Vulnerability

Perceived vulnerability was measured in terms of exposure, or the likelihood of a hailstorm occurring on one’s property on any given year, and sensitivity, or the degree to which one is able to cope with the impacts of hail. Interviewees were asked to rate their exposure and sensitivity on 1-to-10 scale, and the resulting histogram shows that they tended to perceive either very high or very low exposure, but elevated sensitivity due to factors such as crop selection and increasing market stress. Interviewee #3 aptly stated, “I don’t think our risk has changed. I think the likelihood of that risk coming to fruition has changed.” A common sentiment emerged of a recent uptick in damaging hailstorms and very large hailstones in an otherwise steady long-term state, which actually has merit in the meteorological data (Childs and Schumacher 2019). Just last year, a new state record hailstone was measured at 4.83” near Bethune in Kit Carson County.

Does Size Really Matter?

The National Weather Service only issues warnings for severe hail of at least 1.0” in diameter, begging the question of how applicable that threshold is to farmers.When asked to give their definition of “severe” hail, most interviewees expressed that smaller hail, either in large quantities or driven by a strong wind, is overall of greater concern than very large hail. This was attributed to small hail’s potential to strip heads off of crops or even freeze crop saplings early in the growing season. Interviewee #6 shared, “it’s not necessarily the size of the stone that matters. It’s the amount of them and how hard they [fall].” Moreover,Interviewee #9 perceived that “[it] can be smaller hail, the size of dime or pea-sized, but if the wind is with it, it destroys things fast.” Indeed, when asked to provide the greatest negative impacts from hailstorms, crop loss led the way, and the resulting financial loss was usually shared in tandem.

This is an important finding for the local forecasting community, who is currently looking at ways to issue more detailed hail warnings, such as including mention of small hail in large volume. Predicting characteristics like hail volume, duration, and wind-driven effects (let alone hail size) is quite challenging, but field campaigns and modeling work is targeting these facets. Even if, as Interviewee #15 put it, “there’s really not much you can do [to protect crops],” improved predictability can certainly help day-to-day operational decisions and mitigate human injury.

Keeping an Eye to the Sky

The nature of farming and ranching demands keeping tabs on the weather. As such, many farmers are avid amateur meteorologists, some even maintaining personal weather stations. The interview sample was quick to point out various sky and cloud features that are indicative of a coming hailstorm. In particular, seven respondents mentioned that, in the words of Interviewee #14, “if we see a green cloud up there… it’s amazing sometimes as a [hail] predictor.” Eastern Colorado’s dry climate has also primed farmers and ranchers to be wary of particularly humid summer mornings, as this serves as an omen for a stormy day ahead. The majority of interviewees receive warning messages for severe hail via cell phones, either through the Emergency Alert System, county-level warnings like Code Red, or private weather apps. Conversely, many interviewees never receive warning information via television, NOAA weather radios, or the Internet, revealing the convenience of having cell phones on their person when in the fields. This knowledge affirms the utility of wireless alert systems and can also help forecasters know the best pathway to reach the agricultural sector with important severe weather information.

A Variety of Emotions

Interviewees typically described one of three emotions toward hailstorms and their impacts. One camp expressed anxiety, such as Interviewee #8 who said, “it really is something that everybody worries about.” Others have learned to accept hailstorms as a common nuisance or out of their control. As Interviewee #11 said, “If it happens, it happens. Nothing you can do about it [except] accept it.” A third common emotion was that of dejection at the prospect of losing a crop. Interviewee #9 shared how after planting season the mind begins to think about equipment that needs upgrading or chores needing to be done, but when a hailstorm destroys the crop, pride is deflated: “We’re all here for a reason, and part of that is the gratification of our hard work… there’s a hole in your psyche that takes a while to fill back up with something else.” In other words, farmers value the service they are able to provide to the local and broader community, and when a hailstorm removes that sense of worth, their livelihoods often take a hit in deeper ways than those of urbanites.

Appeal for Recognition

Interviewee #8 shared a sentiment of several farmers:

I see hail as something that needs to be a little more recognized. I know that when it happens in the cities it’s a bigger deal because there’s more personal property damaged. But people don’t see the crops as a big deal even though maybe one crop costs more money in insurance than all the cars on a city block [that] are damaged… People don’t stop to realize the long-term effects of that.”

Clearly, forging a deeper partnership between the meteorological and agricultural communities is desirable in order to provide the most pertinent and useful hailstorm information to farmers and ranchers. Toward this end, the findings from these interviews will be taken to local forecast offices to increase awareness and understanding of the agricultural needs of hailstorms and promote further collaboration between these two sectors in decision-making and forecast product development tailored to the agricultural community. This work also opens the door for interviews with farmers in other parts of the country that experience hailstorms to see if common themes emerge. As hailstorms will inevitably impact the vast agricultural areas of the High Plains this summer and in future years, the hope is that this work will spur on continued research efforts and increase recognition of the hailstorm impacts and vulnerabilities faced by the region’s essential farming and ranching communities. ❖

— Samuel recently defended his Ph.D. in Colorado State University’s Dept. of Atmospheric Science, advised by Dr. Russ Schumacher. His research focuses on projecting human exposure from future hailstorms and tornadoes across eastern Colorado. This work was made possible through funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program Grant No. DGE-1321845 as well as NSF Grant No. AGS-1637244.