Jochum Wiersma knows that climate change, which he also refers to as "climate weirdness," is polarizing in agricultural circles. But he urges area agriculturalists to carefully consider how changing weather affects their businesses.
"I understand this a controversial topic and there's debates that are very heated on either side. And it's one of the reasons I called it 'climate weirdness.' We have to understand that all those things that are projected are basically computer simulations, and with that there are some assumptions being made," said Wiersma, University of Minnesota Extension small grains agronomist
"But they're relatively solid assumptions. We don't have to argue about CO2 (carbon dioxide) concentrations being higher than ever before. That's pretty much indisputable," he said. "It might not feel like climate change right now. (But,) we can pick up signals already in our cropping systems."
Many of the online attendees were from northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota. Wiersma, stationed in northwest Minnesota, looked at both Minnesota as a whole and northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota in particular.
Northwest Minnesota and northeast North Dakota suffered a particularly wet and difficult 2019 harvest season but enjoyed a brisk 2020 harvest, which contributed to Wiersma's portrayal of climate weirdness.
- Weather "reflects short-term conditions of the atmosphere," or "what you get."
- Climate is "the average daily weather for an extended period of time at a certain location," or "what you expect."
- Climate cycles "are the expression of nested physical mechanisms operating on the climate. These are cyclical variations in the Earth's climate at multiple time scales from years to decades, centuries and millennia."
- Climate change is "a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth's local, regional and global climates that are above and beyond those expected/predicted from climatic cycles."
Changing climate has affected Minnesota ag in several ways, including a cooler and wetter start to the growing season (in April and May), as well as higher relative humidity and more common and severe precipitation events.
That has important consequences for Minnesota ag:
- Higher carbon dioxide concentrations are more advantageous for soybeans, wheat and sugarbeets than for corn.
- There is increased risk of flooding and drown-out.
'More acres, less time'
"The bottom line," Wiersma said, is that "as of now trend lines point in the direction that you have less time to cover more acres " in a farming operation. Because farms continue to get bigger, farmers face the challenge of "more acres and less time."
Possible solutions to the challenge include bigger and faster machinery and spreading out the workload by growing crops such as barley (typically harvested early) and sunflowers (typically harvested late), he said.
Substituting crops that are less sensitive to weather risks — sunflowers instead of dry beans, for example — is another possibility, as is growing higher-margin crops such as food-grade soybeans.
Regardless of future weather, area farmers will continue to farm the land. But, "are we going to be farming the way we are now? Probably not," Wiersma said.
One example: Cooler and winter springs could cause area farmers to switch to winter cereal grains — crops that are planted in the fall — if the risk of late spring planting grows too great, he said.
In summing up, "this is not an easy topic. It's very controversial. Nonetheless, I think you want to start reading up on this and read through some of those reports, Farming is very much a strategic enterprise and you need to look 10, 20 years down the road," Wiersma said.