Seasons of change: Changes in agriculture tied to changing weather as well as science improvements
GRAND FORKS — Before Sarah Lovas married her husband and moved from one fourth-generation farm to another, she recalled an exceptionally wet season on eastern North Dakota wheat fields.
“In the ’90s, when we were plagued with such wet weather, a disease called Fusarium head blight, or head scab, came into play and completely devastated the crops,” she said. “And we didn’t have varieties of wheat that could handle it well, and we didn’t have fungicides that could help us manage it either. So it was a bad deal for a lot of farmers.”
Many producers, including Lovas, shifted away from growing wheat and sugar beets, which also don’t fare well under wet conditions, in favor of corn and soybeans, crops that scientists say do better in wetter climates and longer growing seasons.
In 2017 in northeast North Dakota, the USDA reported there were 345,000 acres of planted corn and 1.3 million acres of planted soybeans, whereas the same region only had 28,000 acres of planted corn and 15,200 acres of planted soybeans in 1980. Across the border in northwest Minnesota, the USDA reported in 2017 farmers planted 593,000 acres of corn and 1.8 million acres of soybeans, compared to only 151,900 acres of planted corn and 41,500 acres of planted soybeans per the same region in 1980.
“We keep hearing of more and more places planting corn that used to be grown much to the south,” said North Dakota State Climatologist Adnan Akyuz. “And North Dakota happens to be the state that has one of the highest trends in terms of the annual average temperatures.”
On average, Akyuz reported temperature averages in North Dakota have risen 2.6 degrees over the last century, and growing seasons are now 12 days longer on average. In Minnesota, data from the state’s Department of Natural Resources indicate average temperatures have increased by about 0.24 degrees Fahrenheit each decade, totaling a nearly 2.9-degree jump from 1895 to 2015 for the entire state.
In northwest Minnesota, average temperatures have increased by approximately 0.26 degrees Fahrenheit each decade since 1895, totaling an approximately 3.1-degree increase by 2015.
Not just hotter
Regardless of what’s causing climate change and how fast it’s accelerating, scientists like Akyuz say temperatures are changing all over the U.S., affecting the crops states like North Dakota and Minnesota can and can’t grow.
“On average, in North Dakota our winter temperatures today are 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer compared to 100 years ago, which is the highest trend in the United States,” he said. “There might be two reasons for that. One is we are cold to begin with, so we have a greater potential to have that kind of an increase. And also we are in the middle of the continent, which is far away from the moderating impact of the oceans.”
In Minnesota, DNR numbers indicated winters are approximately 4.8 degrees warmer, considering average temperatures between December and March of each year from 1895 to 2015.
Although North Dakota is seeing the most change in temperature, Akyuz said, change in other states will remain more noticeable and more expensive.
“Our summer temperatures did not increase as fast,” Akyuz said.
While state scientists attribute longer growing seasons and slightly warmer winters to climate change, Ken Hellevang, an extension engineer at North Dakota State University, said it’s hard to pin rainfall on the same phenomenon.
“Certainly, we’re seeing a difference in rainfall and precipitation patterns. We’ve seen a lot more rainfall, wetness and higher humidities than what we did 30 to 50 years ago. Is it climate change, or is it just another cycle? I can’t answer that. But certainly we’ve seen some transitions in agriculture because of that.”
More than climate
Lovas said she can’t tell whether all of the change is due to climate change or if it’s just another wet cycle.
“I look back to those people who are 100 years or older, talking about those days of old, and there’s been wet and dry and cold cycles many times. But I don’t look at the ocean temperatures and everything else as close as (climatologists) do,” she said.
“Being a farmer, you realize that we have 5 percent control of our agriculture production,” said her husband, Jason. “Mother nature holds 95 percent of the cards. So, obviously, humans cause pollution, but it’s a little arrogant, I think, to assume that humans are any high percent to blame for the cause of climate change, and I think climate change is a cyclical thing. I mean, you can look at the history of the earth and see that.”
Other agronomists and farming officials insist changing crops are due to market-driven advancement in crop varieties and technology.
“You have to give an awful lot of credit to university research for finding (better) varieties,” said North Dakota Farm Bureau president Pete Hanebutt. “When I was a kid, growing up in Indiana, North Dakota was just a wheat state or a cereal grain state. You didn’t grow corn out here, and you didn’t grow soybeans out here. But the agribusiness companies and the universities — good for them, doing the research to find varieties that are actually productive and profitable here.”
Hans Kandel, a professor of broadleaf crop production at NDSU, said such crop changes are due to both climate change and human effort.
“It is a combination of various aspects that have made it more suitable for farmers to grow things here,” Kandel said. “On the one hand, we may see a change in the growing season and maybe the intensity of rainfall and the amount of rainfall. But as a response, companies have been able to come up with varieties that are more adapted to our conditions.”
The next generation
Lovas said she and her husband are both fourth-generation farmers. If their son chooses to farm, that would continue the families’ legacy.
“Some of this land that we farm has been in our farming operation for all those generations,” she said. “That’s a long time. And it’s the most important part of our farming operation.”
So, Lovas said the family does the best it can to manage the environment and take care of its land.
“We have to take care of it, not just today but going forward,” she said. “Hopefully, we’re improving the land and improving its impact on the environment as a whole, not just the climate.”