Strip tillage (copy)

Strip tillage is used on ground farmed by Ed Montsma, who farms near Lamartine, Wisconsin. Montsma has been no-tilling for 30 years but does some strip tillage on corn ground.

STEVENS POINT — While Democrats fumble around with climate change and Republicans are pretty much AWOL or worse, the general public gets it in increasing numbers. What we have here, folks, is a failure to lead at the highest levels of government.

Among the most recent signs on public opinion, a Yale University report released in late 2018 found 73% of Americans polled agreed that global warming is not only happening, but is also impacting their lives. Sixty-eight percent said this is human-caused. The authors note their polling shows dramatic increases in these percentages in recent years.

One sector that has been slow to accept climate change is agriculture, but that is changing, too. Here’s one example: Last February, the National Association of Conservation Districts asked me to facilitate two focus groups on extreme weather with farmers from across the nation. Twenty-five producers participated. They are all practitioners of soil health systems that stress no-till planting, multi-species cover crops, increased organic matter in and reduced disturbance of soil. Some are row-croppers, others graze livestock, some grow vegetables and fruit. The key point: Virtually all of them say they have been impacted by extreme weather that is increasing in intensity and frequency.

The resulting report, based strictly on their comments, says the producers strongly agreed they have witnessed more extreme weather events, regardless of their region. They added that while their soil health practices increase their operations’ resilience, their yields and profits are impacted by the most extreme weather events, such as what we used to call 100- or 500-year storms that are now coming with frightening frequency. Notably, even when weather slams them, they said their lower input costs, compared to conventional systems, make their operations more resilient. Not so much their neighbors with conventional systems. They said peer pressure still prevents other producers from converting to soil health systems, even when evidence shows its benefits.

When asked, “Have you or others in your community noticed any indications of new or changing weather trends in the last decade?” producers from all regions were nearly unanimous in their responses. Virtually every producer who spoke cited numerous site-specific examples of extreme and variable weather events that impacted operations. Prolonged drought, more intense winds, extreme heat, heavy rains at inopportune times and dramatic weather swings were among examples cited.

A New Hampshire farmer noted the lack of consistent snow cover leading to undesirable frost-thaw cycles. A Wisconsin producer from the Driftless region said, “In the last 10 years, we have had four 100-year storms.” During a 13-inch rainfall in August 2018, several flood control dams in the Coon Creek Watershed were breached, he said.

Several producers said in addition to extreme weather events, they had witnessed dramatic swings in weather conditions. A Minnesota producer summed it up this way: “We are going to get both wetter and drier.” A Florida producer said, “We can’t depend on weather patterns anymore.” A Louisiana producer said, “We’ve had 10 years of swings that I haven’t seen previously.” Similarly, a Mississippi producer said, “I’ve been farming for 46 years, and we have more wide ranges and temperature swings now.” A Minnesota producer said, “We get more extremes. We can have highs in the 90s, but now it’s for longer times. We had a week of 40 below, then it went to 38 above zero, so we are having huge swings.”

Ahem, politicians, are you listening?

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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