Missouri Ag And Climate Change: Farmers Scramble To Find Solutions Like Cover Crops, No-Till Methods

May 6, 2020

  

Missouri Farmers are trying to work around more frequent floods and drought, which scientists say are the result of climate change.  The Missouri Department of Agriculture said it doesn’t currently have anyone in the department looking at the impact of climate change on the state’s top industry, so many farmers are trying to figure out solutions on their own.  

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, without adapting to the changing climate, some Midwestern counties in the U.S. could see a decline in crop yields of more than 10 percent over the next five to 25 years.

James Tucker, a 28-year-old farmer and lawyer in the Ozarks, has seen the impact of climate change on his 600-acre farm.  The land, at the conflux of the Dry Sac and the Little Sac Rivers, has flooded twice in the last five years—in December 2015 and in May 2019.  As Tucker stood outside his truck on his acreage in southern Polk County early this year, he talked about the increase of heavy rains in recent years.  He’s already preparing for future floods by planting cover crops like winter wheat where corn was grown during the crop year.  That winter wheat is also a grain crop for Tucker.

Missouri Farmer James Tucker's Land in Polk County
Credit Michele Skalicky

Cover crops as a mitigation for flooding

The growing of cover crops is one of a few methods farmers are using to help mitigate the effects of flooding and other impacts of climate change.

Mike Burton, professor in the environmental plant science and natural resources department at Missouri State University, said cover crops create infiltration pathways left behind by dead or decomposing roots.

“When rainfall comes, it can percolate into the soil to a deeper depth and store a larger volume where organic matter is more concentrated and acting in that spongelike effect,” said Burton.

And crops planted in a field where cover crops have been planted are less prone to drought stress.

No-till farming explored for healthier soil

Karl Thidemann is co-founder of Soil4Climate, which promotes regenerative agriculture practices, including no-till.  He said minimal plowing or no plowing at all protects the pathways that develop in soil over a number of years, "and whenever a farmer plows or tills the soil, it’s sort of like somebody coming by once a year and knocking your house down, and you have to kind of rebuild everything from scratch.  So, by disturbing the soil as little as possible, the health is maintained, and this allows the plants to get all the nutrition that they need.”

James Tucker uses a no-till method of planting on his farm.  Instead of disturbing the soil, he said, he opens up the soil through the old crop residue, just enough to put the seeds in the ground.  The organic matter left behind contributes to increased soil health.

Many farmers across the country are trying to do their part to mitigate climate change—for themselves and others.

And improving soil through the planting of cover crops and other methods can enhance carbon sequestration.   That’s the process of taking carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in a carbon sink.  Those are fixed molecules found in soil, oceans or plants.

Soil4Climate also advocates for managed grazing.

A Cow Grazes in a Field
Credit Pussreboots / Flickr

"In traditional grazing, farmers just put out their animals into pasture with no management.  "They just kind of forget about them, and the animals wander around, eat whatver they want, which means that they end up eating just the most tasty plants.  As a result, those plants never have a chance to grow to maturity," he said.  "The most desirable plants, meanwhile, are the ones that are growing, and, as that happens for years and decades and generations, eventually the land will begin to desertify and turn to desert because it's no longer being fed properly by the plants there."

Grouping animals, moving them properly and allowing the land to recover before the animals go back on it are beneficial to the land and to wildlife, he said.  And the practice can build soil health “quite quickly,” according to Thidemann.

Seth Itskan, the other co-founder of Soil4Climate, said the burning of fossil fuels needs to stop, but that’s not enough.  And that’s where regenerative agriculture comes in.

“We have to be actively involved in sequestering the carbon that’s already in the air," he said, "and the only way to really safely do that in the timeframe and the scale necessary is through ecological restoration, even more specifically through soil restoration.”

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, farms need to be "continually managed for soil health over the years to reach the full potential of soil carbon sequestration.”

Regenerative agriculture is a win-win for both farmers and the environment, according to Thidemann.  And he said even farmers who are skeptical that climate change is happening, are adopting more soil-friendly practices. 

“They may not accept the climate science, but they’re doing it for several reasons:  They want to see their land in better condition for their children; because they love wildlife and they want to see more animals on their farms, even if it’s because they enjoy hunting.  And a big driver is the greater profitability,” Thidemann said.

There are incentive programs for farmers who would like to adopt regenerative agriculture methods.  The NRCS offers up to three annual payments for three years for farmers to gain experience in planting cover crops.

KSMU reached out to the Missouri Department of Agriculture to find out what resources are available to farmers to make their operations more resilient and sustainable in a time of climate change.  Sarah Goellner, public information officer for the Missouri Department of Agriculture replied, “Unfortunately, we do not have anyone on our team that is working on climate change issues.  That topic is currently outside of the scope of issues and responsibilities our team members cover.”

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.  NOAA expects the hotter annual temperatures to continue each year going forward.