Missouri Ag and Climate Change: Top Agency Says Climate Change 'Outside The Scope' Of Priorities
Farmers in Missouri are facing increased challenges as the result of climate change, especially heavy rainfall events. Last year, flooding on the Missouri River left cropland underwater and idle for most of the summer.
More than 1.4 million acres of farmland in the state went unplanted in 2019 due to flooding and excessive rain, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. Ag is the state’s top industry—and yet, the Missouri Department of Agriculture told KSMU the department doesn’t have a single team member working on climate change issues.
Seventy-year-old Richard Oswald, a member of the board of the Missouri Farmers Union, was one farmer who was impacted by flooding in 2019. Until last year, he lived on the Missouri River bottom in northwest Missouri's Atchison County in his birthplace, the house his parents built about 80 years ago, he said.
"And it's sat there through three other Missouri River floods in the time that it was there and that I was there with no damage to the home," Oswald said.
But 2019 was different. Floodwaters reached the house, and Oswald was told by emergency management personnel that it’s now uninhabitable and can’t be restored. And the floods didn’t just impact his residence.
“It’s got a big impact on farmers in trying to grow a crop. We couldn’t grow a crop last year because of the flooding," said Oswald. "It lasted all summer.”
Moving products in and out of Missouri was a challenge last year because long stretches of highways that crossed the Missouri River remained closed for much of the summer. And the Gavilon Grain Elevator in Phelps City, which serves farmers in Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa, only recently reopened after it was forced to close last spring due to flooding.
Oswald is concerned about the impact of climate change on agriculture and the possibility of even more flooding in the future.
“The ability to move our crops to market, the ability to grow our crops, the ability to bring goods in and out of the state, even to generate power, is impacted by that,” he said.
Missouri has always had a variety of weather. And, because of that, Tim Schnakenberg, agronomist with the University of Missouri Extension, says farmers and livestock producers have always had to be resilient since their livelihood depends on the weather.
"There’s always been extremes in our weather patterns," said Schnakenberg. "So it’s not really anything new.”
But data show the weather in Missouri is becoming even more challenging for those in agriculture. There’s less snowfall in the winter and more rain year round. According to the Missouri Climate Center, 20 out of the past 34 winters, or 59 percent, saw above normal precipitation, and snowfall trends have been declining. Severe droughts left farm fields parched in 2012 and 2018. In recent years, floods have delayed planting times or prevented crops from being planted at all.
According to NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet, 19 of the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, and carbon dioxide levels in the air are at their highest level in 650,000 years.
In 2016, Missourians approved a one-tenth of one percent sales tax to focus on soil health, which is widely believed to be an important part of combating climate change. Ed Smith, with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, said the money is helping, but “it doesn’t come close to fully funding the needs of making sure we’re doing the type of soil health work that’s needed to be resilient.”
He fears that it will take more natural disasters impacting agriculture before those in leadership positions in Missouri will take action.
To find out what farmers can do to become more resilient as climate change continues, KSMU reached out to the Missouri Department of Agriculture. In an email, department spokeswoman, Sarah Goeller, replied with the following statement:
“We do not have anyone on our team who is working on climate change issues. That topic is currently outside of the scope of issues and responsibilities our team members cover,” Goeller said in the statement.
That bothers James Tucker, a 28-year-old farmer in southern Polk County. He said he’s “extremely concerned about the impact of climate change on agriculture.” According to Tucker, people in agriculture should be leading the charge for the U.S. government to address climate change.
“Their livelihood depends on the weather and being able to raise a crop," said Tucker. "And, I think, honestly, for the longest time, they were just denying that it was a problem, and there are a lot of people that still do, but I think the tide has turned a little bit in the U.S. and Missouri to ‘maybe it is a problem but what can we do about it?’"
Farmers like Tucker are implementing new methods to deal with the increased rainfall and flooding and other impacts of climate change.
One thing he and others have done is to plant cover crops in the winter, which Schnakenberg said helps to reduce the amount of topsoil lost during heavy rain.
“It helps to minimize exposed soil, so when we do have excessive rainfall events, the soil is going to stay in place,” said Schnakenberg.
He said cover crops and soil conservation practices are more important now than they’ve ever been to keep topsoil in place.
And planting cover crops has other benefits, too, for both farmers and the environment. For one thing, they improve the health of the soil.
“It used to be thought that leaving the soil bare or fallow allowed it to rest and recover. But, as one microbiologist told me, that soil isn’t resting, it’s dying,” said Karl Thidemann, a co-founder of the Vermont-based organization, Soil4Climate, whose mission is to advocate for soil restoration as a climate mitigation solution.
Soil is kept healthy by plants, which leak nutrients into the soil in the form of a sugar syrup that provides food for soil bacteria and keeps the soil healthy, according to Thidemann.
“Each plant makes its own special blend of syrup that it pumps into the ground to feed a certain microbial community," he said. "So, the greater diversity of plants that you have above ground, the greater the diversity of live below ground. And that allows the soil to perform more effectively.”
And cover crops play a significant role in helping to mitigate climate change by pulling greenhouse gases from the atmosphere into the ground where they're stored in soil.
A study by the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln finds that "North America has the highest potential of any continent for carbon soil storage."