Climate change or not, U.S. Midwest farmers adapt

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Corn damaged by record rains near Atlanta, Indiana, 31 July 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

By Emily Isaacman

In the traditional farmlands of America’s Midwest, where the term “climate change” is taboo, the weather has turned farmers’ lives upside down.

Unprecedented storms, droughts and high temperatures are forcing farmers to adjust practices they’ve relied upon their whole lives to counteract the constantly changing environment.

From maple syrup to corn, farmers are facing lower yields and in some cases the abrupt loss of their crops.

Dan Weber’s maple syrup business in Terre Haute, Indiana, a city with 476 working farms in its agriculture sector, is a case in point. A couple of mild winters have deprived his maple trees of the bone-chilling cold weather they need to thrive. Last year his trees produced only a fifth of the sap he usually harvests.

“It was like the trees were confused by the weather,” Weber said. He can no longer afford to hand out samples at the weekly farmers’ market, and has to limit regular customers who used to stock up on five to six jars to just one jar apiece.

Weber and his brother have been producing maple syrup since 1958. For the past 20 years, they have been traveling over an hour each week to sell their goods at the Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market. They planned to continue until old age caught up with them, maybe in five to 10 years’ time.

But in 2016, a winter with several days at 60°F (16°C) indicated Mother Nature might have a different timeline in mind. While his friends reveled in abnormal bouts of sunshine, Weber longed for the -10°F (-23°C) days of the past.

“You used to put your crop out there and go for it.”

After spending just as much time drilling holes, boiling sap and cleaning trees in 2016 as they had in previous winters, the farmers’ total was cut from 140 gallons to 27 gallons.

“What I wanted to do doesn’t, apparently, maybe now make any more sense,” Weber said. Weber hoped the drop in volume was caused by poorly drilled holes or acidic soil, but efforts to improve his attention to detail the following season yielded the same results. He plans to try one more year before quitting entirely.

Vegetable and meat farmer Melvin Reeves is trying a new technique, known as row covering, that insulates plants from wind and cold. “You have to keep making adjustments all the time,” said Reeves, who started plowing the fields with his father when he was six. “You used to put your crop out there and go for it.”

The technique paid off when a tornado in November left Reeves scrambling to gather produce to sell at the weekly farmer’s market. With the help of his neighbors, Reeves was able to salvage the crops that were protected by row coverings. But one of Reeves’s friends lost his entire corn crop in the tornado and was unable to sell anything at the weekly market.

Reeves said the distressed corn farmer told him: “I already spent $40,000 on sweet corn instead of eating. Now I gotta get back out there and replant.”

Reeves also uses greenhouses, which serve as larger versions of row coverings and shield crops like tomatoes, peppers and lettuce from bugs and rain. They allow farmers to control the climate and thus prolong the growing season.

Reeves started using the structures after he watched the farmer in the stall next to him at the farmer’s market experience success with them.

“You just deal with Mother Nature.”

Farmers rely on family members and fellow market vendors to spread ideas about adjustment mechanisms. “If I wanted to ask somebody or decide what would be a good thing to grow in that greenhouse in the summer, I would ask other growers I know who have tried different things,” said Jeff Padgett, a Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market vendor since 1996.

Although farmers are happy to experiment, researchers are starting to worry about entrusting the state’s economic prosperity and the nation’s food supply to unproven methods.

In May, Indiana University (IU) launched a $55 million research program, called the Prepared for Environmental Change Grand Challenge, that will hire climate modelers to help farmers prepare for growing seasons and researchers to conduct innovative on-the-ground projects.

The University’s first test project, concentrated in Lower Wabash in central Indiana, focuses on developing more efficient ways to fertilize crops. Soil in this region resembles sand, and farmers must fertilize at certain times so that rain does not wash fertilizer into the neighboring river.

As well as documenting their projects online, IU researchers will develop farmer-to-farmer peer education networks that build upon farmers’ existing trust in one another. This way, professors will spread accurate information without upsetting farmers’ insular community bonds.

Aware of local antagonism and political resistance to the term “climate change,” the researchers are treading carefully. “We are not preachy,” said Fred Cate, IU VP of Research. “Our goal is to respect where they are and help them deal with realities without trying to change political views.”

While some farmers are quick to recognize that climate change is driving the changes they observe, others avoid using the term when speaking about their new conditions.

“I don’t have an opinion on it,” said Kim Shatto, another Bloomington Community Farmers’ Market vendor. “You just deal with Mother Nature.”

(Edited by Sue Landau)


Emily Isaacman is from San Diego, California, and is in her first year of undergraduate studies at Indiana University focusing on Journalism, Political Science and International Affairs. Emily has trained in dance for the past eight years and is continuing her dance studies at IU. She also enjoys traveling, yoga, reading and working with children.

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One comment

  • It seems that at the core of climate change denial is concern for the costs related to regulations designed to slow down greenhouse gas emissions and blunt its effects. It is unlikely that the agriculture community would see those regulations directly effecting them. They are on the front line of impacts from climate change and it is unclear to me why they would be so resistant to even discussing the subject. This is a great article! I’m glad to hear IU is making a difference!

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