When Iowa native Mike Johanns served as U.S. secretary of agriculture, he was fond of telling audiences, “You can have one foot in a campfire and the other in a bucket of ice, and on average you’d be just right.” It was his way of cautioning farmers that just because something turned out average statistically, doesn’t mean it was ideal or even normal. He could have been talking about disparities in farm income or national crop yields that produced records in some states while other had disasters. 

That’s the way the weather has felt in Iowa this winter. 

Des Moines and central Iowa endured the second snowiest January ever with 27.2 inches of snow, ranking behind only a whopping 37 inches that fell in January 1886. However, all but a fraction of that snow fell in an 11-day span from Jan. 8-18. We started the month with virtually no snowcover, and ended it the same way. 

January temperatures, meanwhile, ended just 0.1 degree below normal but were bookended by extremes on both ends. Frigid temperatures plunged as low as 17 below zero on Jan. 14-15, welcoming presidential candidates and national media for one of the coldest Iowa caucus nights in memory. The month ended with a string of unseasonably warm temperatures that reached 56 degrees on Jan. 31, melting all but the deepest drifts and snowpiles.

It’s hard to say what that means for the 2024 planting season. Long-range forecasts call for dry conditions to remain in place through this spring. That’s good news to get the crop in the ground, but not so great for growing conditions. One thing is for sure — it will likely be anything but average.