‘Farmers are the largest gamblers ever’: Scientists and ag representatives plan for climate uncertainty

A person take notes in a group discussion.
Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership extension educator Katie Black talks with Minnesota farmers and agriculture industry representatives about climate implications for agriculture in the state.
Britta Greene | Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership

The U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday morning looked the same as it did last week, when University of Minnesota soil scientist Jeff Strock said recent snow and rain brought relief to farmers who will be planting soon.

“The vast majority of that moisture is actually getting into the ground and really starting to wet up that top 4 to 6 inches of soil that has been really pretty dry, given that we’ve had very little snowfall and moisture over the course of the winter,” he said.

In the long term, though, farmers will continue to deal with uncertainty caused by climate change. University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership Director Heidi Roop met with farming representatives in St. Cloud Tuesday to talk through the research on future climate conditions in the state — and what they mean for agriculture. She joined MPR News Cathy Wurzer with takeaways from the meeting.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The US drought monitor map released this morning looks pretty much the same as it did last week when University of Minnesota soil scientist, Jeff Strock said on this show that recent snow and rain brought some relief to farmers who will be planting soon.

JEFF STROCK: The vast majority of that moisture is actually getting into the ground and really starting to wet up that top 4 to 6 inches of soil that has been really, really pretty dry, given that we've had very little snowfall and moisture over the course of the winter.

CATHY WURZER: In the long term, though, farmers will continue to deal with uncertainty caused by climate change. Our next guest met with farming representatives in Saint Cloud earlier this week to talk through the research on future climate conditions in the state and what they mean for agriculture. Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership Director Heidi Roop joins us right now. Heidi, welcome back to the program.


CATHY WURZER: Appreciate you being here. Say, what was the purpose of the meeting in Saint Cloud?

HEIDI ROOP: Good afternoon, Cathy. Well, as always, when we gather experts like farmers and crop consultants and others across the AG industry, we're really in a role of doing a lot of listening and planning for both the near-term future, what's going to happen this season, as well as what the long-term future looks like. And that's really the goal of the work that we do at the Climate Adaptation Partnership, is really trying to help farmers become effective risk managers in an uncertain future climate. So we were exploring a range of climate solutions and how extension and other partners across the state can help our agricultural sector weather the storm.

CATHY WURZER: What is the big message in terms of the biggest problems that you are going to be helping farmers with when it comes to climate change?

HEIDI ROOP: So when we think about agriculture and climate change, that's a big A, Agriculture, right? It accounts for a wide range of things, both impacts from climate across the agricultural system, both what you imagine being in a field, much of the food that we eat, as well as things around the supply chain, how, say food gets to our tables and through a very complex global supply chain, as is the case for Minnesota agriculture.

We know that agriculture in the context of emissions is around 10% of total US greenhouse gas emissions. So we think about climate change in agriculture from two key things, both how the agricultural sector continues to contribute to reducing emissions that make the problem of climate change worse, while we also think about what we need to do, what management strategies, what crop varietals, what genetics and other interventions we need to ensure that producers of all types and sizes and scales are able to be productive and sustainable long term, even in a climate-changed world in the future.

CATHY WURZER: I bet you heard from a lot of people in Saint Cloud. I actually want to play a little bit of audio from somebody who was at the meeting. His name is Matt Kruger, and he farms corn and soybeans in Pine Island.

MATT KRUGER: Farmers are the largest gamblers ever, right? We depend on the weather to produce a crop for us, right? And most people when you drive down a road, you look out both sides of the road. You see corn and soybeans. They don't realize that there's $800 to $1000 on the corn field tied up in inputs. And on the right-hand side of the road, your soybean fields, you know $80 to $300 of inputs. And we're not even talking about land rent. So there's so much risk out there. As farmers, we need to essentially start figuring out ways to hedge some of that risk, try some of these different practices for the new climate we may have going forward.

CATHY WURZER: So you know, Dr. Roop, you know this, obviously. Farming is always a risky business no matter how you slice it. But is it getting worse because of how the climate is changing?

HEIDI ROOP: So I think it depends who you ask and what you grow and what scale you grow it and what access you have to things that help reduce your exposure to risk, things like crop insurance. Those, of course, come with a cost. So there are a range of different risks that we manage on the landscape. But when we think about climate change, often, when we benchmark the decisions we make, we're basing those on what we know and what we've experienced. And climate change sort of rolls the dice in a different direction, and we know that it's amplifying the extremes. And so we can say, look at last year. We had a long, cold, wet spring-- made it hard for farmers to get crops in the ground-- followed by an incredibly hot and dry summer.

This sort of unpredictability and movement between these hot, dry conditions and these wet conditions, that flood and drought sort of stage, makes it really difficult to manage and really difficult to plan. What do you grow? When do you plant? And in some case, the climate is determining when you can even get in the field. And this puts additional stress and strain on farmers and the decisions they need to make, both near-term and, again, long-term. So thinking about then what do we do? How do we manage these risks and the uncertainty that climate change throws into this gambling, as Matt referred to it.

CATHY WURZER: What was your advice to farmers when you met with them in Saint Cloud about managing these risks and trying to roll with the punches, in a sense, try to mitigate some of this?

HEIDI ROOP: Yeah, that's great. And we know that there are a range of solutions. There are things-- we talk to a lot of corn growers. genetics. Have been really helpful, but as we think about both how agriculture has a huge opportunity to be part of the climate solution, we can look at things, like improving soil health, avoiding compacting your soils when they're wet, thinking about cover crops. There are a range of different climate-oriented solutions that both increase the resilience of our landscape and bring co-benefits, like improved water quality. And they can also reduce emissions.

And so we see an increased uptake in these sustainable and quote unquote "climate-smart" practices across the landscape. Matt is an example of a farmer who's really looking to deploy these types of practices and also make sure that the math adds up, right? These are, at the end of the day, businesses. And these businesses need to succeed.

CATHY WURZER: So Matt is trying to make some of these changes, but he told us it's kind of tricky for many other farmers to switch practices under some of these conditions.

MATT KRUEGER: Sometimes I feel farmers take black eyes in media and from the public because climate change is our fault, or we're not taking enough action to address it. And hey, right? It's not always great to see black snow in a road ditch driving down the road and you see all this. And you're like, what the heck? How can that farmer did tillage? But you have to put the farmer hat on, right? This is how they've done it for 45, 60 years, however old they are. And they've been successful. They've paid for the farm. And now we ask them to make a pretty dramatic change.

CATHY WURZER: And so how do you maybe help some of the older farmers change their ways?

HEIDI ROOP: I think there's, again, as I opened saying there's a lot of listening. And I think we need to do a lot of listening and understand that this involves changing behavior and also changing operations. That can be a tall order. We're talking about substantial investments in new equipment or modifying equipment. There are lots of upfront costs, as Matt alluded to, per acre that go into making these changes reality.

And so we need to think about how we incentivize and reduce barriers to the entry here for these climate solutions, and also making sure that we're communicating clearly and also working to understand the co-benefits and the return on investment because we're asking people to change things that they know and they do and, frankly, do well, but maybe not as well as we could in the context of really trying to reduce emissions from the sector and enhance resilience while maintaining productivity.

CATHY WURZER: You mentioned incentives. Is there any kind of funding available for farmers who want to implement some of these new solutions?

HEIDI ROOP: Yes, there are a range of state and federal incentives to help folks move into adopting these practices. We know, for example, we have a lot more interest than there are dollars at the state level. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture, through a range of programs, including the Agricultural Water Quality Certification Program, has a climate-smart farms project. And they award funds. There was a $2.35 million that MDA put out onto the landscape to help producers and producer groups retrofit soil health equipment. Was way oversubscribed, so they had three times more applications, money requests than they had funding for.

So we see at the state level a huge amount of interest. And we also see at the federal level-- in fact, just yesterday, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced in Mankato, $1.5 billion available for conservation partnership programs. This essentially means helping boost funding to deploy these kind of climate-smart practices. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's billions of dollars moving on to the landscape to help Minnesota farmers and Midwest farmers and farmers across the nation adopt these practices and, again, mitigate the problem of climate change from getting worse, while also making more resilient landscapes.

CATHY WURZER: And you'll have more conversations throughout greater Minnesota this year?

HEIDI ROOP: That's right. We are continuing the conversation. And part of what we're doing is actually aggregating a lot of this information and learning what management practices and strategies producers, again, from a range of different contexts, want to use, are willing to use, and what would reduce those barriers to entry. And so we're actually putting it all together in an online interactive tool that will give producers access to information to help them understand, well, what do you do when you have this wet spring followed by a super dry summer? What are ways that you can retain productivity, enhance soil health, and a whole range of other practices, including how we think about the impacts on supply chains because, of course, what happens on a farm has to move across the globe.

CATHY WURZER: Right. Dr. Roop, thank you.

HEIDI ROOP: Thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Heidi Roop directs the Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership housed at the U of M. And the cuts, the audio you heard, those were recorded by the organization's climate communication specialist Britta Greene.

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