When climate change hits home: Local growers use agriculture to mitigate its effects
Jun 10, 2019 06:12AM
● By Editor
By Andee Erickson of the Pine Journal - June 10, 2019
Over the years on his family's organic farm in Wrenshall, some of the most fertile soil in the region, Janaki Fisher-Merritt has noticed an uptick in large rain events as well as unfavorable weather patterns that seem to get stuck.
"It's a different dynamic," Fisher-Merritt said. "Things don't behave the way they used to."
Farmers in the region are witnessing the ways in which a changing climate affects their growing seasons, and ultimately, makes growing food all the more unpredictable. Many of these same growers practice regenerative agriculture, which can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
The climate-related changes Fisher-Merritt has observed as a farmer mirror those shared by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
In Minnesota, heavy rains are more extreme and more common than they have ever been, according to the DNR. This is a trend scientists have linked to climate change because a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, leading to greater amounts of rainfall and snowfall.
The DNR has also reported that most temperature warming in Minnesota has been observed in the winter, which has warmed 13 times faster than Minnesota summers since 1970.
On Fisher-Merritt's farm, this means more insect pests survive the winters.
"That's been another adjustment because that used to be a benefit of living up here," Fisher-Merritt said. "You get the drawback of a shorter season, but you kill all sorts of pests that are an issue further south."
His neighbors down the road at Uff-Da Organics have experienced this in their strawberry patch with the arrival of the spotted wing drosophila last summer.
The fruit fly, originally from southeast Asia, is believed to have first showed up in the U.S. in 2008. Many scientists and farmers, like Adam Kemp, suspect changing climate patterns are linked to the insect's rapid spread.
In order to make management decisions, such as when to start planting, Kemp said farmers rely on a certain level of predictability. Whether he's dealing with unexpected invasive species, a late frost or heavier winds and rainfalls, the number of unpredictable variables has increased and intensified.
"The transition seasons from winter to spring and fall into winter tend to be a little crazier, too," Kemp said. "It can go from being pretty warm to winter, and plants don't have the chance to transition into dormant season."
George Host, a forest ecologist at the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Hermantown, said frost following an earlier spring can kill the blossoms on plants and affect seed production. And increased precipitation doesn't necessarily mean more water for plant life. In fact, Host said, extreme rain can contribute to drought conditions.
"If you get 4 inches of rain at one time, it just runs off the landscape," Host said. "Normally, a nice, slow steady rain over two days would sink into the ground and actually replenish soil moisture."
The apples trees on Cindy Hale's Clover Valley Farm in Duluth were three weeks late as of May 30. Before Hale took to farming full time, she was a forest ecologist at NRRI. If the trees don't catch up, that could affect the farm's production capacity and income.
The juneberry bushes nestled between the apple trees only just bloomed last week. Last year, the plant bloomed in March on Hale's farm. Typically, the plant's berries ripen in June, Hale said, but that won't happen this year with the late spring.
The phrase global warming can be misleading, she said, because some places will get warmer faster while other places will get cooler and wetter. When it comes to climate change, it's all about the rate at which things are changing, not the fact that things are changing because, yes, that's always been the case.
"The rate of change is what's dangerous because you don't know if the patterns we've observed in the historic past will play out when you ramp up the speed of change," Hale said. "We really don't know what's going to happen here."
As a birder, Hale even notices the more intimate changes on her farm. A few weeks ago, she noticed warblers had arrived. Warblers eat insects and there were no bugs out on the farm until around May 29.
"Some of the bigger questions are how do all these populations of individual organisms rely on each other?" Hale said. "Some ways we don't even understand or notice and all of a sudden when those relationships get broken — what's going to happen? We're already seeing that in Europe, parts of the United States, where birds are showing up on time and there's nothing for them to eat."
Mitigating change with agriculture
Hale's lot of gardens, orchards and a greenhouse is an oasis off Homestead Road buzzing with symbiotic connections.
Instead of using gasoline to run a lawn mower, sheep graze between rows of apple trees managing pests and putting nutrients back in the soil. A blue heeler dog prowls the farm to keep predators from eating the growing fruit. A greenhouse attached to the house traps heat while a small solar panel powers a fan that moves air around.
Things are built simply, so when they break, Hale and her husband, Jeff Hail, can fix it themselves. It's their version of regenerative agriculture, a type of farming that cares for soil health, sequesters carbon and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that agriculture contributed to 9 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, and that's not including emissions from transporting and distributing the food.
This is one of many reasons why Rick Dalen of Northern Harvest Farm, across the road from Adam Kemp at Uff-Da Organics, believes regenerative practices in agriculture are so important.
"When you have something that is part of the problem, then it's also part of the solution," Dalen said. "When you understand what the cause is, you can do something about that cause."
One of the ways in which farming contributes to the emission of greenhouse gases is through soil tilling. Churning soil releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere while also leaving the soil vulnerable to erosion because it removes plant matter covering the soil.
So, Dalen keeps his tillage to a minimum and at the surface. Like many of his peers, he plants cover crops, such as sweet clover or rye, to protect soil from erosion and improve soil health.
Eventually, that cover crop gets tilled into the top layer of soil. The addition of carbon-based organic matter in the soil can have a number of positive results, like improving soil structure and feeding vital biological activity.
"There are all kinds of risks in farming and most of them have to do with weather. Climate is only exacerbating those issues," Dalen said. "And so our job of mitigating risk just becomes that much more important — doing things like irrigating, contouring fields, having healthy soil, using cover crops, high tunnels and greenhouses."
Another resiliency strategy Adam Kemp and Dalen practice is diversity in planting: growing a variety of plants, starting at different points in the season and planting both outside and in greenhouses. That way, if any crop fails, there's another one to replace it with.
While building strategies of resilience into agriculture systems does give farmers an advantage, Kemp said nothing would be more helpful than if climate change was taken seriously.
"You might be kind of nibbling away at the margins and you might be gaining a little bit of advantage here and there, but the ultimate thing that would be really nice is if we just had a stable climate," Kemp said.
Randy Hanson, a professor of sustainable food systems at Lake Superior College, believes that regenerative agriculture might represent the greatest opportunity to address the climate crisis.
"Agriculture is the largest framework in which we manage landscapes on the planet and so how we do agriculture is super meaningful because it impacts all sorts of other aspects," Hanson said. "If you're managing a landscape within a regenerate framework rather than an extractive, industrial framework, the implications of that are enormous."
To avoid the most serious damage caused by climate change, the world must drastically reduce its carbon emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but to Hanson, mitigating climate change is about more than just putting a cap on emissions.
The uncertain changes a head calls for humanity to rethink the way it organizes infrastructure and bridges itself to natural systems, he said. Social and economic inequalities must also be addressed.
Hanson's vision is akin to the Green New Deal introduced by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Ed Markey in February. The plan would require a complete transition to renewable energy by 2030 while tackling racial injustice and economic inequality. The U.S. Senate blocked the deal in March.
Recreating food, energy, housing, transportation, school and health care systems that are not dependent on fossil fuels could offer more than just environmental benefits, Hanson said, but social and economic ones, too.
"What fossil fuels are about, in a nutshell, is expanding human power or replacing energy with fossil energy," Hanson said. "So regenerative, sustainable agriculture requires more humans, more bodies, more people."
And that provides more job opportunities, he said, as well as shorter, place-based supply chains that keep economic wealth within the communities.
"The majority of our food comes from — at least in the developed world — centralized and elongated food chains that are fossil fuel based," Hanson said. "Most of our vegetables come from California or Arizona and then farther abroad. And it's those supply chains that will be disrupted (with climate change)."