Climate adaptation: the biggest threat and opportunity for Minnesota farms

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By Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership – (@mattjdoll)

So far, 2019 has seen Minnesota’s skies break monthly precipitation records across the board, Given the soggy first weeks of October, it seems quite plausible that it will be the rainiest year we’ve ever recorded. While perhaps less visible than the wildfires in western states and provinces, these heavy rains – to which climate change is a strong contributing factor – have major consequences.

Among the most detrimental impacts of these rains are those faced by farmers. Wet fall conditions make crops difficult and more expensive to harvest and dry. And heavy moisture in the spring requires many farmers to delay planting, feeding into the vicious cycle.

Changing precipitation patterns are one of many problems hammering Minnesota farmers, who make up the nation’s fifth-largest agricultural economy.  Farm incomes in Minnesota have been historically low for several years now in spite of a relatively strong domestic economy due to a variety of factors, including trade shocks and the loss of small and medium sized farmers and the dominance of a few large agribusiness companies.

The latter factor was a point of frustration at a recent forum in Madison, Wisconsin, where the United States Secretary of Agriculture said: “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” apparently signifying that the federal government will do little or nothing to prevent further consolidation. (For a strong rebuttal to this attitude, check out Johanna Rupprecht’s recent blog on the Land Stewardship Project website.)

This is not to say that farmers are victims of impartial forces. This crisis is a consequence of policy choices, of a system set up to maximize production of a few crops and generate profits for large companies. This same system is the reason that the water in many areas of Minnesota is increasingly dangerous to drink, the reason that pollinators and birds are rapidly declining, and the same reason that agriculture is one of the top three contributors to Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Climate impacts will continue to mount, but if Minnesota builds the political will, we can cut our emissions and give farmers the tools they need to weather this crisis – in some cases, doing both with the same tool, while also cleaning up Minnesota’s waters and reducing the demand for pesticides.

Cover crops are one example of a practice that, if scaled up, can help farms across Minnesota thrive economically and reduce their environmental impacts. Cover crops help build healthy, productive soil by adding and holding nutrients in the earth, and can be interspersed with traditional row crops for mutual benefit. The cover crops can be sold for their products or fed to livestock. (A recent story of two family farmers in Winona County is an excellent example.) 

Kernza® grains,  The Land Institute

Similarly, perennial crops, which stay on the land year-round, fulfill similar ecological functions. Perennials like Kernza® root themselves deeply into the soil, absorbing massive volumes of water and carbon and keeping soil healthy, while providing a crop that farmers can sell. Kernza and other perennials are especially helpful in areas where groundwater is especially vulnerable to contamination, and legislation has been introduced at the Capitol to help bring more of them to those areas. 

However, the solution isn’t as simple – or as top-down – as wishfully informing farmers about these crops. With low and declining profit margins, many farmers who would otherwise like to adopt these crops can’t afford to implement a new technique or take a risk with something new. That’s why it’s critical that these parts of the equation are also addressed.

As a state that has frequently seen ourselves on the edge of cutting-edge biological science, Minnesota must renew our investment in developing profitable conservation crops and farming techniques that address the hazards of heavy rains. We need to fully fund programs like the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota to make sure these crops are viable for market, and that the markets are ready to buy and use them. And we need to provide farmers with the financial support they need to make the transition.

The systems change we need goes beyond these crops, however. We need to ensure that Minnesota’s agricultural policies are working for family farmers, not just large companies. One step is to restore the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Citizen Board, a recently-abolished watchdog that had the authority to deny permits for factory farms and other projects when it deemed them harmful to the surrounding community.

We can fix carbon emissions and agricultural pollution while helping farmers endure – and thrive – amidst weather extremes exacerbated by the climate crisis. Minnesota helped launch the original Green Revolution, and we need to now continue working to create the next generation of multi-benefit conservation crops to address today’s challenges.

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