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Minnesota’s new climate plan asks farmers to change how they farm

Anne Schwagerl would love to purchase an interseeder, a machine that plants cover crop seeds directly into a field where another crop like soybeans is already growing. But she and her husband, who grow a variety of grains on 400 acres in western Minnesota, can’t afford the $80,000 price tag. So she was happy when the state legislature recently approved a cost-share program to help farmers to purchase such equipment.

“It will start as a pilot program,” she says. “But then hopefully it will be scaled up because, you know, farming itself is a fairly risky endeavor. And it’s a lot to ask farmers to invest so much to try cover cropping.”

That program and others has Schwagerl hopeful that the state can reach the ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals outlined in a new strategy unveiled this month by Gov. Tim Walz. His 69-page Climate Action Framework is organized around six goals designed to ensure that the state cuts greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels to net-zero by 2050. That’s in line with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s goal to keep the global temperature rise to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius/2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

“To maintain the things we love about Minnesota — our pristine lakes, incredible wilderness areas and state parks, and outdoor economy — we need to act in a collaborative, bipartisan, and forward-looking way,” Walz said in a press release. “That’s what this plan aims to do.”

Schwagerl was one of several farmers who served on the Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change and gave input for the plan’s “climate-smart natural and working lands” goal.

In addition to increasing the number of farmers who use cover crops — less than 4% of the state’s farmlands currently have cover crops on them — the plan also calls for increasing conservation tillage, the use of biochar on cropland and pasture land, and incentivizing nitrogen and methane management practices that will reduce emissions. It also points to the importance of developing new markets and supply chains for perennial crops that keep the soil covered year round.

That last objective is something agronomist and plant geneticist Don Wyse has been working on for more than a decade. In 2012, he co-founded the Forever Green Initiative at the University of Minnesota, which has a team of 75 people developing more than a dozen crops that can thrive in the Upper Midwest. Some are winter annuals, like pennycress, that can be planted in the fall, grow under heavy snow and be harvested in the spring for things like biofuels.

Others are perennials, like the grain kernza, which can be used instead of wheat to make flour; kernza stays in the ground and produces crops for five years.
Wyse says he and his team are still investigating how much carbon these new crops can sequester in the soil — soil carbon sequestration in agriculture remains a matter of debate — but he says regardless there are other carbon benefits built into his crops.

Unlike corn and soybeans, for instance, pennycress needs very little nitrogen fertilizer, which is a significant source of greenhouse gas.

Wyse’s crops are also bred to work within the upper Midwest’s shortened growing season. That narrow window is one reason why so few Minnesota farmers use cover crops and perennials — there’s not much time to harvest in the fall and then plant again before the ground freezes.

That’s where equipment like an interseeder or a seed tender, which allows farmers to haul more cover crop seeds so they spend less time going back and forth to the seed shop, can help. The Minnesota chapter of the Nature Conservancy is helping farmers around the state to buy or lease such equipment, but Rich Biske, who oversees the nonprofit agricultural programs, says more investment at the state level is needed.

“With a few more pieces of equipment out there, and some people to run them,” he says, “we can have dramatically more cover crop acres.”

In addition to laying out practical steps that the state can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the agricultural sector, the governor’s framework also notes that more research is needed to explain how greenhouse gasses flow into and out of landscapes.

“It takes a really long time to change soil, literally decades,” says Pat Lunemann, a farmer in central Minnesota, who like Schwagerl was on the governor’s advisory council. “And you can ruin soil in a short period of time with the wrong crops and the wrong practices. So as the state looks forward, we’re hoping to do a whole lot more research to figure out what creates better soil health.”

The state’s ambitions for sequestering more carbon in the agricultural sector will come to naught though if Walz cannot convince farmers to make a big change in how they go about farming for the sake of the planet.

“In Minnesota, we’ve got a real urban-rural divide,” Lunemann says. “It’s not unlike other parts of the United States. And so the same issues that we’ve had with Covid vaccine, we also have with some of our other things, too, like the belief that climate change is occurring. It’s very frustrating.”

But Schwagerl says she was recently invited to give a talk on climate issues in a “super conservative” part of the state. A decade ago, that would have been unheard of. “So I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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