Farming in Today's Weather: "Take care of the land, and the land will take care of you"

No till corn.jpg

Last weekend, I returned to my home state of Nebraska to celebrate the marriage of two dear friends.  The outdoor ceremony was lovely, and good times were had by all, but the happy young couple was nearly upstaged by an unwelcome guest—triple digit temperatures. 

Nebraska, like over half of the continental United States, has been plagued by hot, dry weather this year, the likes of which haven’t been seen in over 50 years.  And farmers aren’t the only ones who are feeling the burn.  As a result of smaller harvests this year, consumers can expect higher grocery bills, perhaps into 2013.

I grew up as the fifth generation of Nebraska family farmers, and my grandfathers can remember what it was like on the Great Plains during the 1930s Dust Bowl era.  With no rain to germinate the seeds they planted, they watched hot, dry winds (not unlike the ones I felt last weekend) blow away their barren topsoil.  In response to this tragedy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture established the Soil Conservation Service to help farmers adopt practices that would hold that soil in place.  The SCS pioneered demonstration projects that showed farmers the erosion-reducing advantages of tree stands, terraces, and fences, and rented farmers the equipment they needed to put conservation practices in place.

In the 1980s, our family farm went through another challenging period.  Again, hot, dry weather defied farmers’ ability to grow a crop, despite the lessons learned in the Dust Bowl.  And again, the federal government stepped in, encouraging farmers to adapt their practices to the weather-related challenges of the day.  The 1985 Farm Bill established a series of “conservation compliance” measures to help suffering farmers.  In exchange for financial support from the government, farmers agreed to establish conservation plans for fields with “highly erodible land” with the help of the SCS (which has since been renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service).  Farmers began improving their terraces, rotating their crops, and planting grassed waterways that helped hold their valuable soil in place, even when the weather wasn’t doing them any favors.  

Today, farmers in places like Nebraska are once again suffering due to hot, dry weather.  And just like the last two generations who adapted their practices to meet the challenges of the day, there are techniques that farmers like my dad can adopt to help mitigate the effects of this scorching summer on their crops:

No-Till Farming: Farmers who use no-till plant their seeds directly into the stubble from last year’s crop, rather than plowing up the stubble first.  The stubble helps trap winter moisture in the soil below the field so that crops can use it in the spring, and the roots from the stubble help spring and summer rains filter down to where the growing crop can use water.  Farmers who use no-till tend to have higher yields, but use less irrigation water, than their plowing peers.
  • Cover Crops: Farmers can also plant an off-season “cover crop,” such as clover, to help preserve moisture for their commodity crops they plant in the spring.  Like the stubble from no-till, cover crops help trap winter moisture and filter spring and summer rains, making more water available for when crops need it.  They can be even more effective when they are used in conjunction with no-till.   Farmers such as NRDC Growing Green award winner Gabe Brown have found cover crops to be crucial to overcoming tough weather years.
  • Crop Diversity: Farmers can diversify their operations to fortify the soil and make their farms more resilient to unfortunate weather events.  Soil is a complex resource, and different plants affect it in different ways.  Some, like corn, require a lot of nitrogen to grow, and others, like soybeans and other legumes, actually redeposit nitrogen back into the soil.  Nitrogen is just one example of the myriad constituents of soil.  By diversifying their operations, farmers can build up a healthy, hearty soil profile that is better situated to withstand bad years.  Gabe Brown exemplifies this risk management strategy; he plants more than 25 different crops on his ranch! 
  • Although farming is an inherently weather-dependent business, farmers can downsize some of that risk by considering practices that preserve precipitation that comes at less than ideal times. Crop insurance programs are taking on new importance as the primary safety net in federal farm policy.  Crop insurers should take notice of the risk reduction that comes with conservation improvements.  Additionally, consumers can build relationships with the farmers who grow their food, find out what techniques those farmers are using, and support farmers who are positioning themselves to better handle challenges Mother Nature throws their way.  Farmers have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient, and they have made it through tough times before by learning how to become better stewards of their land.  Hugh Hammond Bennett, original director of the SCS, said it best more than 75 years ago, “Take care of the land, and the land will take care of you.”