looking for the high ground
Farmer Jack Hedin waiting with his squash
plants for a break in the rain to begin planting.
In late May of this year I drove over to Rushford, Minnesota to visit People’s Food Co-op supplier Featherstone Farm and chat with Featherstone’s Jack Hedin about prospects for this year’s produce. With 250 acres, the farm is one of the Co-op’s biggest suppliers of organic produce. It rained as I drove to the farm and it’s raining now as this newsletter’s finishing up in June. On either side of Highway 16 farms lay underwater as I drove west. Rochester’s Post-Bulletin reports that May 2013 has been the wettest on record with 21.9 inches of precipitation, 13 inches above the 30-year average amount received in the area. By the time this newsletter goes to press, May and its long, cold wet weather may be a memory, but even if you’re reading this in hot and dry July, the effects of this year’s cold and wet spring will still be felt in our local producers’ fields and in your grocery’s produce section.
The starvation of the locavores
“This weather has been very disruptive,” Jack Hedin said as he brewed us a cup of coffee in their office kitchen. “Anytime you get thrown off the bell-curve of your production schedule—we’ve got a number of things ripening throughout the summer—you compound your problems as your schedule compresses into a smaller season. I can tell you right now that you’re not going to have as big a year with local produce at People’s Food Co-op. You’re going to have to go to California for more of your produce.
“No doubt the drought is over,” Hedin said. “I was very concerned about drought in January. You could look at it this way: in the short term all this rain is a pain in the neck—it makes for a lot of work for us; in the middle term it’s good news— the drought is over; but in the long term, what’s happening to agriculture in this part of Minnesota, it’s a sign of huge problems to come.”
Featherstone Farm has a storied history in eastern Minnesota. It’s named after the township in Goodhue County where Hedin’s great-grandfather, A.P. Anderson, farmed. Although Anderson kept a detailed journal of the challenges of farming in the upper midwest, there’s nothing in his notes that would have prepared him for the rapid changes that his great-grandson has experienced. In the summer of 2007 torrential rains dropped over 23 inches of water on the Minnesota bluff country in 36 hours. The ensuing floods washed away Featherstone Farm. “We found butternut squashes from our farm two miles downstream, stranded in sapling branches five feet above the ground,” Hedin recounted in an op-ed in the New York Times. With support from CSA subscribers, local food co-operatives, and loans, Featherstone Farm managed to rebuild its business—on higher ground. But it isn’t the only one that’s come to the conclusion that the rains may be a recurring problem. “Competition for high ground has become insanely fierce around here,” Hedin observes. “Rents have doubled in the last five years.”
It’s not only the farmer down the lane who’s competing with Featherstone for the better farmland. Prices have also been driven up by speculation on the international market. The China Investment Corporation and other international investors have been buying land as a hedge against inflation. “The Chinese have got billions in U.S. dollars, and you can only buy so much Apple stock,” a Manhattan-based hedge fund manager told me. “So, China, and other international investors have been looking for places to buy. You buy the mine, the farm, the timber and you just hold onto it. You may not know a thing about farming, but that’s not relevant to the banker.”
When things start looking all Iowa
Even after Featherstone’s move to higher ground, the occurrence of intense rain falls, such as those of this spring, followed by periods of drought, have proven a challenge. In his 2010 op-ed, Hedin states that the effects of climate change pose an “existential threat” to his farm. “A family farm like ours may simply not be able to adjust quickly enough to such unendingly volatile weather.”
According to the Minnesota State Climatology Office, southeastern Minnesota has seen one of the highest increases in the amount of annual precipitation in the country. There has been “an increase of more than 1.5 inch a decade since 1976.” And the rain tends to come in “precipitation events” that drop several inches of rain over a short period of time. Global Climate Modeling for the Featherstone Farm region suggests that temperature range and plant hardiness zones are shifting north. The Minnesota office reckons the Mississippi bluffs’ climate by the middle of this century will be found on the North Shore of Lake Superior and the Rochester area will have the climate of southern Iowa or eastern Nebraska.
The story is similar in Wisconsin. In a recent report by the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) out of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, scientists report an increase of 10% precipitation in the state overall since 1950. They expect an increase of 4–9º F with a 25% increase in intense rain events by 2050.
As everyone knows, it’s difficult to forecast what the weather will be next week, much less next decade. As highly paid meteorologists say, we “have to wait for the real-time data,” but if we look at what poorly paid historians have to say about periods of climate change in the past, the outlook is rather grim. The 17th century, for example, experienced decades of climate disruption, possibly caused by the ash clouds thrown up by an unprecedented number of volcanic eruptions in the first half of the century, which decreased the planet’s mean summer temperature by about 2º C. According to historian Geoffrey Parker, “the summer of 1627 was the wettest recorded in Europe for 500 years ... 1641 was the third-coldest summer recorded for six centuries.” The resulting years of bad harvests, starvation, civil wars, food riots, and revolution indicate that humans as a species don’t deal well with climate disruption caused by relatively mild variation in temperature and precipitation.
Soggy clouds and fields heavy with rain in the valley where Featherstone Farm is located.
Although a longer growing season would seem to promise bigger crop yields, data from recent summers that have been exceptionally warm reveal that crop yields of corn and soybeans were actually down 10–30% because of heat stress during July and August. Increased precipitation is expected to mitigate some of this crop failure, but only at a fraction of the overall loss. In addition, increased precipitation, such as we’ve experienced this spring brings increased soil erosion. Most erosion occurs during intense rainfall taking place when fields are bare. Erosion of topsoil is one of the biggest long-term issues agriculture will face in these regions with increased rainfall.
As Hedin notes, his ancestor A.P. Anderson went out of his way to introduce conservation practices at his farm. As Featherstone’s website has it, Hedin’s ancestor grew to be “keenly sensitive to the richness and diversity of the high grass prairies and woodlands that he helped to plow up, chop down and grub out in his youth.”
Featherstone Farm’s Hedin takes his inspiration from his ancestor’s practices. The coming years will require foresight and patience to adapt to the changing environment and probable disruptions in standard agricultural practices. From improved erosion-prevention practices to changes in farm insurance subsidies, the fallout of a new climate will be unpredictable and, at least in the Mississippi blufflands, a bit muddy. “Very few people think about the implications of their actions,” Hedin tells me as we are saying goodbye. “A.P. Anderson was talking about the need for better conservation of our farmlands a century ago. How many people in the upper Midwest thought about those things then?”
The wet spring’s effects are already apparent. Area farmers’ markets have have scant produce, Roger Bertsch, People’s Food Co-op in La Crosse’ organic produce buyer reports that there has been an exceptionally slow start to this year’s season.
“I had somebody from a CSA call me last week,” Roger said. “They were looking for asparagus to fill their CSA boxes. They’re really working to get produce for their subscribers. I called around and found him somebody who had a shipment of asparagus and other greens to unload. It’s a scramble to find anything out there. Nobody’s getting anything in the ground.”
Local farmers will be struggling with the difficulties of changing climate and precipitation patterns more and more in the coming years if the climatologists’ models come to pass, but at least if the co-ops keep supporting each other, they may weather the storms.
“An Almanac of Extreme Weather,” Jack Hedin, 27 Nov. 2010