By Matt Russell
Four generations of my ancestors made a living in Iowa’s dirt. That proud legacy is under attack as extreme weather profoundly affects the productivity of Iowa’s current farmers and of farmers to come. Climate change is wreaking havoc on my farm, my family members’ farms, and every farm in Iowa.
We had historic 500-year flooding in 2008. In 2010, we had another round of 100-year floods. In 2011, the Missouri River wiped away thousands of acres of farmland.
In 2012, we shifted gears into a catastrophic drought. In half a decade, Iowa saw some of the worst flooding and the worst drought in more than a century of keeping records.
This year ushered in a new level of extreme weather. We had the worst blizzard on our farm in two years during a May 4 snowstorm, a foot of heavy, wet snow and 36 hours without power. I remember thinking; I suppose there’s someplace in the world where you can listen to frogs in the snow, but it shouldn’t be happening in Iowa. Climate change means the wrong weather at the wrong time.
This year, the state also received the most rain ever recorded in the month of May. Then it shut off and we went back into drought, with one of the driest Augusts on record — even drier than during last year’s epic drought. July was one of the coldest on record, then we had one of the hottest Septembers.
This extreme weather variability is serious business when you are trying to farm — especially when taxpayers are picking up some of the cost of the crop insurance bill, when markets swing as wildly as the weather, when you watch your precious soils wash away overnight with 11 inches of rain, or when wells are empty and ponds dry up.
Yet there are still people denying the existence of climate change, and some of the loudest voices come from agriculture. While some farmers deny climate change, none of us are ignoring it.
This year, nearly 800,000 acres went unplanted because of heavy spring rains. Contractors, building ponds and digging wells can’t keep up with demand because of repeated and longer-lasting droughts. We’re tiling like crazy because of more intense rainfalls. We’re buying more crop insurance to deal with extreme weather and more frequent crop losses. We’re downsizing or liquidating livestock because we can’t find affordable feed.
Climate change is real, it’s happening, and it’s already causing harm to Iowa farmers, but we aren’t just victims. We can be part of the solution. The world must stop putting carbon into the atmosphere and start putting it back in the ground.
This is something Iowa farmers can do. On our farm, we’ve replaced row crops with productive forage systems. Farmers are getting fired up about cover crops. Farmers can explore longer crop rotations. We can conserve more fuel, while developing more sources of renewable energy.
Farmers can’t choose whether or not to deal with the consequences of the droughts, cold, heat, and floods of climate change. But we do have a choice when it comes to being part of the solution.
I speak for a lot of Iowa farmers when I say let’s stop wasting our time debating the existence of climate change. We need to use our time and money to find ways to protect the climate we depend on.
Time and again, American agriculture has led the world in solving big problems. It’s time we put our shoulders to the wheel to help solve this one.
Matt Russell is State Food Policy Project Coordinator at Drake University Agricultural Law Center. He works to develop Iowa’s food system and rural economy. He co-owns and operates a farm in Lacona. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org