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Farmers Can Adapt to Changing Climate

One day before an international report showing that agriculture faces serious challenges if the planet's climate continues to warm rapidly, a small group of farmers speaking in Ames, Iowa, said that farmers are already adapting, but more needs to be done.

Two Iowa farmers and an Iowa State University climate scientist participated in a panel discussion, Agriculture and Climate Change: Faith for the Future, held at Bethesda Lutheran Church in Ames on Sunday.

Arlen Schipper, who farms with his son, Brent, in Grundy County, Iowa, said that he hadn't thought too much about climate change until last spring.

"I woke up on May 2 with 1,800 acres of corn in the ground and 8 inches of snow on it. That's scary," he said.

Schipper is already making changes that can help with weather extremes, including incorporating corn residue into the top 9 inches of soil, a practice that works on his flat ground but would not on hilly farms in southern Iowa, he said.

"We create a sponge so that when we get these heavy rains, it soaks it up," Schipper said. He also splits nitrogen into three applications, which helps reduce the chances for fertilizer loss.

Matt Russell, who raises beef and produce sold at the Des Moines Farmers Market, said that the response by Iowa's farmers to the state's voluntary nutrient-management plan is one example of how farmer innovations can be a part of adapting to climate change and having a positive influence.

"Everybody's excited about cover crops," said Russell, who is the state food policy project coordinator at Drake University's agricultural law program and is co-owner of Coyote Run Farm.

Besides slowing erosion and capturing nutrients, cover crops can increase organic matter in the soil.

"We can put carbon back into the ground. We can innovate," Russell said.

In response to a question, Russell said he's not calling for government programs or mandates, something that makes many farmers uncomfortable.

Schipper also cautioned against taking action that may not work, or be cost-effective. "We've got to be able to pay for what we're going to do," he said.

Panel members acknowledge that the issue of climate change remains controversial in agriculture.

When he returns to the Minnesota farm where he grew up, "I have a hard time engaging my own family in the discussion," said Christopher Anderson, an Iowa State University climate scientist and agronomist.

Anderson said that the effects of warming temperatures in Iowa and the Midwest involve rainfall. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture evaporating from the ocean, the source of growing season moisture in the Corn Belt. That has the potential to create more intense rainfall events, something farmers have already seen in recent years.

"If farmers haven't adjusted to wetter springs, then they should, because it's not going away," Anderson said. And, 20 to 30 years out, climate modeling projects a hotter climate in the Midwest, he said. All that means that a summer like 2013, which started out wet and ended hot and dry, "by the middle of the century becomes a more frequent event."

Farmers will have to make capital investments to store some of that excess water in the spring to use later in the summer, he said.

Both Russell and Schipper also spoke of their own faith and religious studies. Schipper, who said that he prays for guidance each morning, sees his care of his farm as a moral responsibility. "We still need to be the good steward," he said.

The meeting was organized by Iowa Interfaith Power & Light and co-sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs, Bethesda Lutheran Church, Citizens Climate Lobby, and the University of Northern Iowa's Center for Energy and Environmental Education.

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