On my Stearns County farm, I have a low-lying field that can raise a great crop of corn. In fact, at times that flat field is my best row-crop producer. Those good times are becoming increasingly rare. As I struggle yet again to get spring planting done under conditions that are looking like the new normal, it’s clear that extreme weather is relegating my best acres to marginal status, at best. In short, I have land that isn’t far off from being made unsuitable for corn by climate change.
For farmers, this is the new climate reality. The Star Tribune has been covering how we are facing unprecedented struggles to get crops in as torrential rains and an overall lack of “normal” weather predominate. This is not a one-off year — it’s part of an ongoing, brutal cycle. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Climate models show raising annual row crops in Minnesota will increasingly lack stability. Fields and portions of fields that are “unstable” yielders are a problem.
A recent Michigan State University study of 70 million acres in 10 Midwestern states, including Minnesota, found that around a quarter of our cornfields are consistently “unstable yielders” as a result of being too wet, too dry or otherwise unsuitable for cropping. Because these low-yielders waste nutrients, they account for more than 40% of the nitrogen fertilizer escaping into our water as a pollutant and atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Wasted fertilizer is wasted money. Michigan State estimates farmers lose $1 billion in fertilizer annually as a result of unstable yielders. As climate change accelerates, the costs of unstable acres, both economically and environmentally, will only go up.
What do we do? We need to stop being fixated on equating the worth of farmland with its ability to raise two crops: corn and soybeans. At times like this, I could use a cash grain crop I can plant at another time of the year, like the fall, and harvest the next growing season. Or if it was a perennial grain, it would be planted once and yield year-after-year without tillage or fertilizer.
It turns out crops for a new climate reality are being developed. The University of Minnesota’s Forever Green Initiative has been experimenting with crops like Kernza, a perennial wheatgrass, and pennycress, an oilseed that can overwinter and grow alongside soybeans. What I like about this research is that it is not only tackling issues like harvestability but also working on developing markets. That’s important, because it’s crazy to ask farmers to make changes if they can’t make money.
The Minnesota Legislature provided a little more than $4 million in Forever Green funding this year, which can help get this research out to the farmers who can most benefit from it. Frankly, as someone who raises dairy heifers, I have some farming flexibility, since I can add value to perennial forage crops like hay and grass by feeding them to livestock. This gives me the option of gaining economic value from something other than corn, while keeping roots in the ground year-round, thus reducing runoff and erosion.
But the majority of Minnesota farmers lack the flexibility having livestock out on the land provides. They are only raising field crops and aren’t likely to add livestock. Research initiatives like Forever Green are tailor-made for helping these farmers stay viable as climate change makes more of their cropland marginal, unstable corn and soybean acres.
The current public support for research initiatives like Forever Green is a great start, but this year’s weather proves we need to ramp up research efforts quickly. One way to do that is for Gov. Tim Walz and his Department of Agriculture to fully fund Forever Green at $10 million per biennium. Even if you don’t farm, such an investment is money well spent. It would not only keep Minnesota agriculture viable but clean up our water and help the land stay resilient in the face of extreme weather.
This spring was another reminder that climate change is modifying the way we interact with the land and that nature is not going to wait for us to adjust. We need new cropping options to meet the challenge of the new normal. Now.
Chris Mosel farms near Holdingford, Minn.