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  • Jim Chamberlin

Food in a Changing Climate

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

On what appears to be the backside of the 2021 drought, it’s a good time to reflect on the impacts the drought had, and explore ways we might reduce the impact of drought, or other weather related events, on our food supply.

The drought of 2021 was the worst drought to hit many parts of Minnesota in four decades, but what’s most concerning to me is it came on the heels of 2019, a record precipitation year for Minnesota and capping off the wettest decade on record. The drought of 2021, actually started in the winter of 2019-20, when the precipitation spigot began to shut down.

Graph showing state-averaged precipitation, departures from 1991-2020 "normals," and cumulative deficits beginning Jan 2020 and running through November 2021.

Courtesy: Minnesota State Climatology Office, using data from NOAA, retrieved via Midwest Regional Climate Center

Drought's Effect on Pine River Area

Pine River is an area rich in cattle, rocks, and sandy soil. It is also an area rich in water, when it rains. The South Fork of the Pine River Watershed flows out of the Foothills State Forest into a series of largely undisturbed creeks and wetlands, much of it pastureland. The glacial outwash soils here are sandy and fragile. When abused by overgrazing or excess tillage, the soil organic matter (SOM) depletes rapidly.

The drought hit area farmers and ranchers hard, most having to sell off livestock or go into debt to buy hay that almost doubled in price. A few saw signs of the coming drought and sold early. They had enough ground with healthy enough soil, that they were able to graze through the summer. Others found low ground or other unused areas to graze, or they were able to graze crops that didn’t yield enough to harvest. Some innovative producers who planted cover crops into corn were able to graze them in late fall, avoiding costly hay or feed. One producer mentioned how his wooded pastures produced better than his open pastures, highlighting another benefit of silvopasture.

Droughts are nothing new, but as dust accumulates in our atmosphere, these and other extreme weather related events are projected to occur more often. In the book, The Secret Life of Dust, by Hannah Holmes, she writes about how major climatic shifts in the past were triggered when there was a lot of dust in the planet’s atmosphere. She writes how dust takes many forms and includes any particles in our air; the basic elements of life such as carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, pieces of dead insects and plants, garbage such as microplastics, or just simply suspended clay and silt soil particles. Dust is pollution, and right now there is a lot of it in our planet's atmosphere, and it is fueling extreme weather events such as droughts.

Increasing soil health captures “dust”, in the form of the basic elements of life, and stores it below ground in the form of soil organic matter. Implementing the soil health principles creates a positive feedback loop, increasing the ability of plants to capture this “dust” and convert it to soil, increasing water infiltration rates and holding capacity. This increases plant growth, yielding more crops and forage, increasing the number of animals the land can support. The livestock, when properly managed, drive the biology of the soil, further increasing the health of the soil, and so on…

The permaculture principle I find most valuable is to catch and store energy high on the landscape. I was taught to think of this principle in terms of pollution being a wasted asset. For example, if water, soil, or manure, all forms of energy, are not captured and stored, they will end up downstream as pollution in someone else's fishing hole or drinking water. The ultimate sponge of our planet is perhaps not wetlands, as many suggest, but the soil that feeds them. Healthy, carbon-rich, soil captures and infiltrates water, holding it in the soil profile. Once there, it moves slowly across to fill the wetlands that flow to the creeks, lakes, rivers, and ultimately the oceans.

Increasing SOM mitigates impacts of extreme weather events. Holding water in the soil restores watershed hydrology, stabilizing stream flows and reducing streambank erosion. A well vegetated soil that is high in organic matter can easily infiltrate two to five times more water in a given time frame than a bare, degraded soil. As much as two-thirds of the water in the upper reaches of the Mississippi River comes from groundwater, highlighting the need to capture and infiltrate rainwater.

As we’ve altered the hydrology of the landscape, through ditching, soil depletion, and development, we’ve increased the “bounce” of our streams, rivers, and wetlands. Water levels rise faster and fall faster, increasing erosion and making us more susceptible to droughts and other extreme weather events. While stormwater runoff related to development is a contributor to this issue, and efforts are under way to address this issue, restoring landscape hydrology by restoring soil health has a much better return on investment in terms of nutrient reduction downstream.

ROI High for Restoring Soil Health

Restoring soil health increases drought tolerance. According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service a one percent increase in SOM increases water holding capacity in the soil profile by approximately 25,000 gallons per acre. Just a two percent increase in SOM provides an additional one-half to one inch of available water holding capacity in the soil profile. This allows crops to go longer without rain before there is a reduction in plant growth, with this same two percent increase in SOM doubling the number of days between rains which crops can go without a reduction in yield.

The impacts to the land from the 2021 drought were obvious yet this summer. Pastures which were overgrazed during the drought came back heavily to Canada thistle and other weeds. Overgrazed woodlots lost trees and still other trees saw severe branch dieback. Many have yet to fully recover. And, with a lack of rain this fall, wetland and lake levels are low, as are water levels all the way down the Mississippi River. The increase in severe weather will need an equally increased effort to mitigate impacts to our food supply.

The good news is we have an ever increasing knowledge of what constitutes a healthy soil and how to restore it. There are well established principles and practices that build soil health, and there is an ever increasing selection of tools and appropriate technology that can help to implement these practices, and measure their effectiveness. We can capture the “dust” that is ever more abundant in our atmosphere and use it as an asset to restore our soil and drought proof our landscapes.

Resources on Soil Health

To learn more, start with our soil health blogs. Or contact us for a tour of the HDT gardens and Campus and visit with our knowledgeable and passionate staff.

If you’re a producer interested in implementing the soil health principles on your farm, contact us to set up a free onsite visit to your farm. We approach each farm visit as an opportunity to learn from you and to share what we know. Our goal is to assist you in getting soil health supporting practices on the ground.

Or get involved by joining us at one of the many events or initiatives we support. To create farmer to farmer networking opportunities, we collaborate with the Crow Wing River Basin Forage Council in hosting an annual winter meeting as well as summer pasture walks . A Network Group of the Sustainable Farming Association of MN, the Forage Council works to promote vibrant, productive family farms; enhance soil health, forage production and water quality within the context of the land.

Pine River and surrounding watersheds make up a Local Learning Hub through the University of Wisconsin’s Grassland 2.0 project. Learning Hubs are place-based focal points of activity that support two-way communication and co-learning between the Grassland 2.0 project and the local region and people. Our Local Learning Hub has access to the expertise and resources of Grassland 2.0 to support local agriculture and food systems that support farm profitability, community vitality and environmental quality. Contact HDT if you’d like to learn more about Grassland 2.0 and how you can be involved.

If you aren't a farmer or producer yourself, other ways to get involved include getting to know local farmers and growers by visiting area farmers market in the Pine River or Driftless Region. Other great steps are to join a community garden or seed library and speaking to local and regional leaders about the importance of responsibly grown food.


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