Zack Koscielny has only been in charge of livestock and crops for four years, but the freckled farmer has already become accustomed to successive dry spells, including one last year that put large swaths of the Canadian prairies in exceptional drought.
Then, this season, Manitoba was hit by a major spring blizzard and several Colorado lows that have caused flooding in the Red River Valley and brought unseasonably cold, damp weather that has delayed planting across the province.
"The weather's been crazy," says Koscielny on a chilly spring day on the fields of Green Beach Farm in Strathclair, three hours northwest of Winnipeg.
The uncertainty would be enough to deter most starting out. But Koscielny instead has decided to reimagine his family's fourth-generation farm into something different on the prairies. Mimicking native prairie, his fields look "messy" as he intercrops instead of planting the tidy single-crop fields of wheat and canola of his childhood. He puts his pigs and chickens out on the pasture and arranges for calves to be born outdoors, later in the season and far from a barn. It's all an effort to restore the soil health here to buffer against the wild swings in weather — and the pessimism that prevails when it comes to the climate.
"It seems like a constant challenge with the weather. But I have a hard time blaming Mother Nature for it. That's her job. And it's our job to deal with it," he says, adjusting his baseball cap as he rotates his two dozen yearlings to a new pasture to avoid overgrazing. "Instead of all this 'woe is me' stuff, I think farmers have such an opportunity if they manage land properly and stop fighting Mother Nature."
Koscielny's approach is part of a global movement — with several robust efforts in Minnesota — known as "regenerative agriculture," a sweeping term that entails the many ways farmers can restore and nourish ecosystems while also growing food. For years now, a small but increasing number of producers have been turning away from the traditional, linear supply chain approach to agriculture in favor of the way Koscielny is farming, using techniques such as rotational grazing, cover cropping, or even growing trees in pastureland.
Supporters say this form of agriculture leads to both better products and healthier soils. It also, according to a growing body of research, helps farmers both fight climate change and adapt to the extreme weather events caused by it.
Minnesotans playing a role
Several efforts are playing out across Minnesota. Since the summer of 2020, Anne and Peter Schwagerl of Browns Valley, Minn., on the South Dakota border, have been planting Kernza, a perennial wheat that will make their soil more resilient to erosion.
"It's benefiting soil health," Anne Schwagerl said. Buffeted by winter winds or spring's heavy rains, the soil is protected, she said. Kernza "provides an armor for the soil. It's like a cousin to wheat, but you don't have to work the ground." An added perk, she added: Like wheat, Kernza has gluten so you can bake with it to bring out its "really nutty, sweet flavor. It's delicious."
Kernza, Schwagerl said, "fits within our crop rotation for managing weeds and it's another way to be on the innovation spectrum. That's something I really like about farming. I want to leave my land and my soil in better shape than I found it for the next generation."
Dennis Fuchs, administrator for the Stearns County Soil and Water Conservation District, is also bullish on Kernza as a way to improve soil health. "We're really trying to encourage cover crops more than we have in the past," he said, noting that alfalfa, like Kernza, is another go-to perennial crop in dairy country.
"It takes more management to figure out how to include cover crops and perennials in current crop rotations," he said. "Having new crops like Kernza, and improving upon it, is what needs to happen to succeed in the future with changing climate."
Big stakes for global climate
Although it's tricky to calculate exact numbers, groups such as Project Drawdown estimate that agriculture and land use are responsible for about a quarter of the world's greenhouse emissions. And in Canada and the United States, government agencies put the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture alone at around 10% — a figure advocates say may be conservative. Regenerative practices, on the other hand, can turn agriculture into a climate solution, in part by storing more carbon in the soil. Project Drawdown, for instance, estimated that regenerative agriculture could have a greater climate impact than either electric cars or geothermal heating.
But as important to Koscielny and his fellow farmers is how it can help protect against climate extremes. Thanks to everything from healthier bacteria and microbes within the soil ecosystem to deeper root systems, land tended by regenerative agriculture practices has the ability to hold more water.
"People who are doing regenerative practices are experiencing much lower drought impacts because they have soils that are better at retaining moisture overall," said Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator for the National Sustainable Agriculture Commission in Washington.
And that matters here.
The prairies, home to 80% of Canada's farmland, have grappled with drought for centuries. But scientists predict even drier conditions — alongside the kind of flooding that has put farms under water in southern Manitoba this spring — as a new norm in prairie life. This year, a report from the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change zeroed in on the world's agricultural systems, saying that global warming is already threatening food sources around the world, and that extreme weather will be the new normal for farmers.
The risk to North American topsoil
For farms across the North American Wheat Belt, the drought-flood cycle is particularly damaging. Parched, powdery soil does not absorb water quickly, so the water from torrential rains tends to rush across the surface, carrying even more topsoil away. That's what has happened in the American Midwest over recent years, where farmers accustomed to predictable rainfall have suffered ruined fields and crops from both dry spells and extreme rains.
Here in Manitoba, last year's drought caused several municipalities to declare agricultural disaster in the prairies. Farmer Larry Wegner in Virden, Manitoba, says he had to plan for raising fewer cattle to have enough forage through the winter, and he expects to face such decisions more frequently. "In the prairies we're going to see milder weather, so more water running in wintertime, which is rare for this part of the world. And we're going to see drier summers. So we have to start thinking, how do I start planning ahead for that to make it better?"
Those questions will be centerstage at the Manitoba Forage & Grassland Association conference in November on regenerative agriculture. The meeting will bring in experts to discuss ways to improve soil health so that the ground holds more water in periods of heavy rainfall, and so there are reserves from wetlands in times of drought.
The principles behind regenerative agriculture date back centuries, to the way Indigenous peoples grew food before industrial agriculture. But it can be hard for farmers to transform their methods, says Brenda Tjaden, founder of the Manitoba consultancy Sustainable Grain. Farmers' fields might look "messier," she says. There is currently no certification like a green label, since the approach to land management is harder to measure. "It doesn't follow a particular regime," she says. "Are there waterways close by? Are there any grasslands? Are there any trees in the vicinity?"
Indeed, one of the characteristics of regenerative agriculture is that it is place-specific, says Lara Bryant, deputy director for water and agriculture with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Working in harmony with a wet, southeastern U.S. ecosystem is far different from what a farmer would do in the dry Southwest, or the drought- and flood-battered Grain Belt.
"We need to increase the support to farmers and ranchers at the beginning level," she says. "And our policies need to not get in the way of regenerative agriculture."
'Surprised how much progress we've made'
Koscielny grew up ecologically minded. His parents, who farmed part time, were long driven by locally grown food. They've watched the farms grow around them and an industry demanding "bigger, bigger, bigger," says his mother, Karen Gamey-Koscielny, whose family settled this farm in 1919.
"But if you don't have good soil, you've got nothing," says her husband, Jason Koscielny.
Their son Zack says that, when it came to choosing a career after earning a degree in agroecology at the University of Manitoba, he had no intention of going into monoculture-style grain production.
Instead he runs "five quarters," or 800 acres, that has seen Timothy grass and a variety of vetches return. With big cracks forming on his hills last year, the rains this year are not replenished "by any stretch," he says. "But we're just surprised how much progress we've made. And even with the dry conditions we've added animals every year of the drought."
Regenerative agriculture, he says, is first off a practical measure to reduce inputs and increase margins. But it also digs deeper. "It's rewarding to be doing a job that can really be making a big difference on such a huge issue that most people just say, 'Well, I don't know how we'll ever address that,'" he says. "I think we're front and center as far as having the ability to make change and make the difference."
Staff writer Gail Rosenblum contributed to this report.
This story is from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.