Climate

Farmer in the Times: “Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life.”

“The country must get serious about climate-change legislation and making real changes in our daily lives to reduce carbon emissions. The future of our nation’s food supply hangs in the balance. “

THE news from this Midwestern farm is not good. The past four years of heavy rains and flash flooding here in southern Minnesota have left me worried about the future of agriculture in America’s grain belt. For some time computer models of climate change have been predicting just these kinds of weather patterns, but seeing them unfold on our farm has been harrowing nonetheless.

So begins a poignant, must-read NY Times op-ed, “An Almanac of Extreme Weather,” by Jack Hedin a Minnesota farmer.

In this piece, a farmer out-reports most of the U.S. media, with a seldom-told story that will ultimately be the much-retold story of the century, but needs to be heard now while there is still time to act:

My family and I produce vegetables, hay and grain on 250 acres in one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. While our farm is not large by modern standards, its roots are deep in this region; my great-grandfather homesteaded about 80 miles from here in the late 1800s.

He passed on a keen sensitivity to climate. His memoirs, self-published in the wake of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, describe tornadoes, droughts and other extreme weather. But even he would be surprised by the erratic weather we have experienced in the last decade.

In August 2007, a series of storms produced a breathtaking 23 inches of rain in 36 hours. The flooding that followed essentially erased our farm from the map. Fields were swamped under churning waters, which in places left a foot or more of debris and silt in their wake. Cornstalks were wrapped around bridge railings 10 feet above normal stream levels. We found butternut squashes from our farm two miles downstream, stranded in sapling branches five feet above the ground. A hillside of mature trees collapsed and slid hundreds of feet into a field below.

The machine shop on our farm was inundated with two feet of filthy runoff. When the water was finally gone, every tool, machine and surface was bathed in a toxic mix of used motor oil and rancid mud.

Our farm was able to stay in business only after receiving grants and low-interest private and government loans. Having experienced lesser floods in 2004 and 2005, my family and I decided the only prudent action would be to use the money to move over the winter to better, drier ground eight miles away.

This move proved prescient: in June 2008 torrential rains and flash flooding returned. The federal government declared the second natural disaster in less than a year for the region. Hundreds of acres of our neighbors’ cornfields were again underwater and had to be replanted. Earthmovers spent days regrading a 280-acre field just across the road from our new home. Had we remained at the old place, we would have lost a season’s worth of crops before they were a quarter grown.

The 2010 growing season has again been extraordinarily wet. The more than 20 inches of rain that I measured in my rain gauge in June and July disrupted nearly every operation on our farm. We managed to do a bare minimum of field preparation, planting and cultivating through midsummer, thanks only to the well-drained soils beneath our new home.

But in two weeks in July, moisture-fueled disease swept through a three-acre onion field, reducing tens of thousands of pounds of healthy onions to mush. With rain falling several times a week and our tractors sitting idle, weeds took over a seven-acre field of carrots, requiring many times the normal amount of hand labor to control. Crop losses topped $100,000 by mid-August.

The most recent onslaught was a pair of heavy storms in late September that dropped 8.2 inches of rain. Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency again toured the area, and another federal disaster declaration was narrowly averted. But evidence of the loss was everywhere: debris piled up in unharvested cornfields, large washouts in fields recently stripped of pumpkins or soybeans, harvesting equipment again sitting idle.

My great-grandfather recognized that weather is never perfect for agriculture for an entire season; a full chapter of his memoir is dedicated to this observation. In his 60 years of farming he wrote that only one season, his final crop of 1937, had close to ideal weather. Like all other farmers of his time and ours, he learned to cope with significant, ill-timed fluctuations in temperature and precipitation.

But at least here in the Midwest, weather fluctuations have been more significant during my time than in his, the Dust Bowl notwithstanding. The weather in our area has become demonstrably more hostile to agriculture, and all signs are that this trend will continue. Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. And a University of Minnesota meteorologist, Mark Seeley, has found that summer storms in the region over the past two decades have been more intense and more geographically focused than at any time on record.

I can’t find the Zandlo or Seeley statements online, so if anyone can direct me to them, please post links in the comments.

No two farms have the same experience with the weather, and some people will contend that ours is an anomaly, that many corn and bean farms in our area have done well over the same period. But heavy summer weather causes harm to farm fields that is not easily seen or quantified, like nutrient leaching, organic-matter depletion and erosion. As climate change accelerates these trends, losses will likely mount proportionately, and across the board. How long can we continue to borrow from the “topsoil bank,” as torrential rains force us to make ever more frequent “withdrawals”?

Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life. A family farm like ours may simply not be able to adjust quickly enough to such unendingly volatile weather. We can’t charge enough for our crops in good years to cover losses in the ever-more-frequent bad ones. We can’t continue to move to better, drier ground. No new field drainage scheme will help us as atmospheric carbon concentrations edge up to 400 parts per million; hardware and technology alone can’t solve problems of this magnitude.

To make things worse, I see fewer acres in our area now planted with erosion-preventing techniques, like perennial contour strips, than there were a decade ago. I believe that federal agriculture policy is largely responsible, because it rewards the quantity of acres planted rather than the quality of practices employed.

But blaming the government isn’t sufficient. All farmers have an interest in adopting better farming techniques. I believe that we also have an obligation to do so, for the sake of future generations. If global climate change is a product of human use of fossil fuels “” and I believe it is “” then our farm is a big part of the problem. We burn thousands of gallons of diesel fuel a year in our 10 tractors, undermining the very foundation of our subsistence every time we cultivate a field or put up a bale of hay.

I accept responsibility for my complicity in this, but I also stand ready to accept the challenge of the future, to make serious changes in how I conduct business to produce less carbon. I don’t see that I have a choice, if I am to hope that the farm will be around for my own great-grandchildren.

But my farm, and my neighbors’ farms, can contribute only so much. Americans need to see our experience as a call for national action. The country must get serious about climate-change legislation and making real changes in our daily lives to reduce carbon emissions. The future of our nation’s food supply hangs in the balance.

Hear!  Hear!

Here are two posts on the connection between human-caused global warming and superstorms that have been devastating the nation and the world during what is likely to be the hottest year on record:

“Given the association of extreme weather and climate events with rising global temperature, the expectation of new record high temperatures in 2012 also suggests that the frequency and magnitude of extreme events could reach a high level in 2012. Extreme events include not only high temperatures, but also indirect effects of a warming atmosphere including the impact of higher temperature on extreme rainfall and droughts. The greater water vapor content of a warmer atmosphere allows larger rainfall anomalies and provides the fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat.”

“I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”

The past 12 months have been the hottest on record, according to NASA.  So perhaps it isn’t completely surprising that we are seeing these record-smashing deluges.  But the number of these beyond-extreme events just in the United States alone ought to make people take notice:

And, of course, another part of the world has been even more devastated by deluges and flooding, albeit while receiving only moderate attention in this country (see Juan Cole: The media’s failure to cover “the great Pakistani deluge” is “itself a security threat” to America).

And then there was the devastation to Russia, a country that always thought it was going to benefit from climate change:

This is all one big coincidence for the anti-science disinformers.  But for the rest of us, the really scary part is that we’ve only warmed about a degree Fahrenheit in the past half-century.  We are on track to warm nearly 10 times that this century (see M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F ).

In short, we ain’t seen nothing yet!

Related Post:

34 Responses to Farmer in the Times: “Climate change, I believe, may eventually pose an existential threat to my way of life.”

  1. Increasingly. the Times is publishing more and more reports about bad weather, the economic damage that causes, and often even mentions global warming in the same article! I expect to see much more of that in other media reports during the next couple of years. It will be very interesting to see how those future reports affect the voting public and their congressmen. The clash of facts on the ground (so to speak) and the denials of politicians and their plutocratic supporters may very well result in good news for CO2 emission reductions.

  2. Jonah says:

    Too little, too late, grey lady. Where were you when we needed you? Why can you only publish the facts after the debate is over? (justification for the Iraq war and climate zombie takeover are only the two most obvious examples)

  3. MK says:

    “Too little, too late, grey lady. Where were you when we needed you?” – grey lady answer: working with Judith Miller to ensure the U.S. started war with Iraq.

  4. fj3 says:

    Again, climate change is the most important political issue.

    It is also the most important financial issue, scientific issue, social issue, etc., etc., because it is about survival.

  5. Chris Winter says:

    I hope somebody is compiling reports like Jack Hedin’s — they contain a lot of “ground truth.”

  6. MarkF says:

    I hope that those readers and posters at this site that have the knowledge to do so are prepared to go to the New York Times to correct the avalanche of lies that will follow this article.

    More than almost anyone, farmers see this happening first hand, yet, in North Dakota they send a “tea party” candidate to congress.

  7. Leif says:

    Seeing articles like this in the ossified gray bitch does bode well but I must agree with the above posters. “Too little, too late.” Just like the dinosaur GOBP, who are also in their death throws, damage beyond imagination to most, has been done to our society and all of humanity by these entities.

    “Here Comes the Sun” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6tV11acSRk

  8. BillD says:

    The main point is that we need continued coverage of this kind, not just some op-eds in the week before Cancun. In the last year or two, the media has reported many extreme weather events without mentioning their possible connection to climate change. Let’s hope that they will again say: “And this and more is what climate experts are predicting.”

  9. fj3 says:

    Absolutely powerful! Soon first-hand experience will be the death Nell to denier tactics.

  10. John McCormick says:

    Rate of global CO2 emissions increasing. Amazon rain forest drought leading to dieback. Arctic sea ice in a death spiral leading to ice-free Arctic in 3 to 5 years and lost sink for heat traveling north in spring, summer and autumn. More Arctic heat, more permafrost and tundra melt. More CO2 and CH4.

    What is caught in the middle?

    That Midwestern farmer.

    We are losing brake fluid and there is a steep downgrade ahead.

    John McCormick

  11. Jay says:

    As a small taro farmer and silviculturalist in Hawaii the changes in climate have been equally breathtaking. I’m now able to grow crops that historically were planted at a 1000 feet lower in altitude and the state as a whole is drought stricken. Little of the important agricultural lands now remain viable. . .we need neither agriculture nor permaculture anymore– we need “dynaculturists” or those pioneers that understand how fast the ground under their feet is changing. There is not a moment to lose. My new plantings reflect an anticipated climate two ag zones hotter.

  12. Jim says:

    Meanwhile, The Economist is touting the delights and opportunities that await us all in “adapting” to climate change, recycling long-debunked platitudes about how it’s gonna be fine for all us rich folks, only the poor will suffer.

  13. Bill W says:

    Ben Santer has come up with a “percentage attribution” methodology for extreme weather events: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/11/27/can-we-blame-extreme-weather-on-climate-change.html#

  14. Colorado Bob says:

    A climate journey: From the peaks of the Andes to the Amazon’s oilfields

    As the world prepares for the Cancún summit, John Vidal visits people on the frontline of the battle against global warming

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/nov/26/climate-change-andes-amazon

  15. Tim L. says:

    Hedin is a canary in the climate coal mine. Would that the numbnuts denialists in Congress might seek testimony from the likes of him, rather than the oil industry-funded liars they put up as “experts.”

  16. Joe says:

    While my gut tells me that this weather is AGC related, I think we’re falling into the same trap that deniers do when they say a spell of good weather (or cold weather) refutes AGC. It’s all about statistical significance – is the extra rain actually significant? IDK, but it needs to be established – we can’t just accept anecdotes as data.

    But, don’t get me wrong – I feel bad for this guy, and he is probably right about why it’s happening.

    [JR: That’s why I focus on the record-smashing extreme weather events and statistical aggregation of the data whenever possible, as in the links]

  17. Joe says:

    “Minnesota’s state climatologist, Jim Zandlo, has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in our part of the state. ”

    Missed that statement on my first read – maybe there is sufficent proof that the weather really has changed.

  18. Chris Winter says:

    RE: #7 — Oops!

  19. Colorado Bob says:

    – is the extra rain actually significant?

    We’re not talking about ” extra ” here , we’re talking about this :

    ” Residents describing the deluge say it began with a constant, pounding rain that started around July 28 and continued for a week. There were brief pauses of stifling heat and humidity, quickly followed by more rain. It went on that way for over a month. “

  20. Jeffrey Davis says:

    Denialists try to parlay the cautionary reluctance to blame any discrete event on Global Warming into the position that none of them are due to AGW. In point of fact, there are no discrete events in weather. Humans slice and dice tornadoes or floods into isolated events, but everything is connected. Put simply, there’s greater energy and more water in the entire atmosphere due to human activity and so everything in weather is amped up.

  21. paulm says:

    It is dire up here in Canada also….

    Flood forecast already badSaturated ground could spell disastrous spring: experts
    http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/flood-forecast-already-bad-108106284.html
    “All of the indicators are indicating we could be in serious trouble,” said Bob Stefaniuk, mayor of the Rural Municipality of Ritchot, home to 5,000 people on both sides of the Red River south of Winnipeg.
    In southern Manitoba, farmers have just slogged their way through what Environment Canada’s David Phillips calls “the wettest growing season on record.” In parts of farm country, you can still see water standing on fields, many of which were too wet this year to produce a crop.

    Wet Weather Severely Impairs Crop Prospects Across The Prairies
    http://www.mbchamber.mb.ca/2010/06/wet-weather-severely-impairs-crop-prospects-across-the-prairies/
    Exceptional spring rainfall will severely impact this year’s wheat, durum and barley production, leaving leave more than eight million acres unseeded, the CWB announced today in its preliminary crop forecast.

    Local crops devastated by wet autumn weather
    Two-thirds of the Fraser Valley potato crop rots in the ground
    http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Local+crops+devastated+autumn+weather/3762743/story.html#ixzz16c9VuB64
    “This is far beyond the ability of crop insurance to pay for,” Driediger said. “The worry our farmers have is that they won’t be able to finance next year’s planting.”
    “My grandpa started this farm in 1898 and we’ve never seen anything like this,” Delta farmer Brent Kelly said.

    Wheat crop falls 17 per cent, StatsCan says
    http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Wheat+crop+falls+cent+StatsCan+says/3621949/story.html#ixzz16cADFPjG
    A planting season that began with torrential rain and flooding and is ending with crop-killing frost will cut Canada’s total wheat production

    Weather wreaks havoc on local crops
    http://www.bclocalnews.com/richmond_southdelta/richmondreview/news/104584919.html
    “It’s not just a one crop, one year thing either,” Zylmans said. “At this point we’re calling it a disaster. It’s unprecedented. We’ve never heard of anything like this happening before. My dad started on this farm back in 1948, a little before my time, but going back through the history of the farm, never have we lost this amount.”

    Flood damage brings Bella Coola farmers tough choices – The Globe and Mail
    http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/british-columbia/flood-damage-brings-bella-coola-farmers-tough-choices/article1783443/

    Here is an interesting diti on climate warming….sea level rise combined with lower river levels due to warmer seasons….

    Salty Fraser wreaks havoc on farms
    http://www.bclocalnews.com/richmond_southdelta/richmondreview/news/98935964.html
    farmers are sounding the alarm due to the Fraser River’s flow. A low snowpack means less fresh water to push back saltwater, which makes its way upriver with the help of extreme tides.
    The report, from engineer Lloyd Bie, notes salt water can push its way 16 kilometres upriver.
    “I know one guy he burnt off 30 acres of beans last year,” said Zylmans. “He checked the levels in the morning and he started irrigating. As the water came in, the levels went up, and in the afternoon, his crop went down.”

    “Nature has really changed, and it’s a matter of us in agriculture working with that and making adjustments as necessary.”

  22. paulm says:

    Nice point #19

  23. Wit's End says:

    Another story about the looming food crisis: http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2010/11/chinas-dangerous-food-crisis.html#comments

    and my comment to it:

    Death by a Thousand Cuts:

    http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2010/11/death-by-thousand-cuts.html

    There is going to be a food crisis EVERYWHERE next year, not just in China, because the inexorably rising level of background toxic air pollution is destroying crops. There’s a wager at the end of that post – food riots by July 2011…if anyone wants to place a bet – pile on!

  24. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    All this while the sun is still so very quiet.

  25. JCH says:

    Recently I was reading a blog and somebody from Minnesotans for Global Warming left a comment, and I responded with a link to a picture of a bridge that was wiped out by that flood.

  26. Michael says:

    Rabid Doomsayer (25),

    I wouldn’t say that the Sun is still “very quiet”, since there is now little doubt that solar cycle 24 has started, with the minimum being in late 2008, although it is clear that it isn’t going to be a strong cycle; activity is currently at around 2005 levels and about 40% of the predicted peak:

    http://www.leif.org/research/Active%20Region%20Count.png

  27. William P says:

    More people seem to be coming around to recognizing food shortage as the probable crisis event of global warming that will launch humanity into awareness and panic stage.

    Once definite food shortages make their appearance, awareness of what growing food shortage will lead to will ramp up public fear quickly.

    Discussion of whether there is or is not warming of our earth will trail off and demands on government to “do something” will set in.

    It will be interesting to see the reaction of our big right wing propaganda media who have loudly proclaimed global warming a liberal hoax. How will they mobilize their standard operating procedure of blaming the Democrats and liberals for food shortages?

    Maybe it will come in the form of “the liberals, led by George Soros, secretly brought about a food shortage by cornering the markets on grains to create belief in their global warming hoax.”

    But when serious shortages appear, maybe these propagandists will lose power, or maybe they will rally their paranoid troops to take some drastic actions. One can imagine politics will get even more radical than it has lately.

    We live in interesting times, indeed.

  28. J Bowers says:

    Joe, there’s a web article from Uni of Minnesota’s Extension programme on Mark Seeley that’s of interest:

    In the eye of the storm
    http://www.extension.umn.edu/source/spring08/spring08-04.html

    The lesson Extension professor Seeley teaches today is Amplified Climate Variation. Remembering the term is less important than the change it represents. As the days of easy, all-day rains disappear in Minnesota, big downpours of excessive rainfall in one area are on the rise. The result is more winners and losers in the rainfall game—or sometimes just losers and losers.

    Seeley has gathered statistics on Amplified Climate Variation for years, but the summer of 2007 provided a real-time model. “I wrote the book on Minnesota’s weather history and I know we’ve never had a month like August 2007,” he said.

    That month, the federal government declared 24 Minnesota counties drought- disaster areas after cities like Pipestone reported their third-driest July in history. On the flip side of the rainfall equation, the federal government also declared seven southeastern Minnesota counties flood-disaster areas after record rainfalls, including 15 inches in Hokah in 24 hours.

    It could be you need to go through the Minnesota Weather Almanac to find Seeley’s findings. It’d make sense for a farmer to have read it and obtained the information.
    http://shop.mnhs.org/moreinfomhspress.cfm?Product_ID=864&bhcp=1

    Seeley sounds like someone worth just contacting, to be honest.

  29. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    You can’t have rain unless there are cloud-condensing nuclei. Where do these come from? Possibly from the black carbon from airplane engines.

    On any day the air flight map of the US is once solid mass of those little green airplanes like about 5,000 of them.

    In 2000, the PDO shifted into a cool phase which results in a more La Nina like condition in the North Pacific. IIRC, this results in a wetter weather in the northern Great Plains and nearby regions.

    From 1910 to 1940, the PDO was in a warm phase and this was a major contributing factor to the drought in the 1930’s. Most of the years in this interval were EL Nino years

  30. MarkF says:

    paulm 22

    “In southern Manitoba, farmers have just slogged their way through what Environment Canada’s David Phillips calls “the wettest growing season on record.” In parts of farm country, you can still see water standing on fields, many of which were too wet this year to produce a crop.”

    I live in Eastern Manitoba. I spoke to a friend yesterday, a farmer. He said this area is one hundred percent write off, no crop whatsoever.

    And yet, farming districts tend to send climate change denying representatives to the provincial and federal government. despite the fact that they the farmers are being destroyed by climate change.

    homo “sapiens”

  31. Black says:

    I’m not sure of the quotation from Mark Seely, but he does appear almost daily on MPR (http://minnesota.publicradio.org) which generally posts the audio but not transcripts. If that was the source, hauling it out would be a chore. The University has ’em archived in a more readily accessible form at http://climate.umn.edu/weathertalk/.

    The suggestion to get in touch with him sounds reasonable. The umn page says comments and questions are welcome.

  32. Russell says:

    “An existential threat to my way of life ” What part of oxymoron doesn’t Farmer understand? Existential threats pertain to existence itself, and climate modelers with long memories will recall that 25 Halloweens ago, a black carbon diven worst case delta T of minus 26 C was in rhetorical fashion when nuclear winter’s chief spokesman declared “the extinction of homo sapiens cannot be excluded”

    Two digit temperature jumps necessarily have statistically fat tails, and if some people warn of multidegree decadal increases , others may well ask where are the empirical data suggesting we are already in one ?

    The high end MIT projections entail per diem delta T’s of a millidegree or more in the very near future, and emphasizing the outliers makes the recent instrumental record more a source of cognitive dissonance than back-cast confirmation. Hype is the natural enemy of hope.

    [JR: In case you hadn’t noticed, the extremes are piled on top of the moving average. Warming has already made the once in 1000 year heat wave and drought that halted Russian grain exports 8 times more likely. What happens when it occurs every decade?]

  33. Russell says:

    Joe, at the current exchange rate , much debased, two anecdata won’t buy you a plea of nolo contendere

    [JR: Russell, the science on what we face on our current emissions path — just BAU — is horrific. I publish the science of the worst-case scenario because people ought to know it, since much of human activity is designed around avoiding the worst case scenario. BUT if you think we aren’t facing a sh!tstorm, I’d like to know the scientific basis for that view.]