Fighting back against climate change: Wisconsin farmers find ways to protect their crops, our food supply

Wisconsin apple grower Andy Ferguson isn’t quite comfortable using the term “climate change” when talking about the damaging weather his family’s orchards have experienced over the last few years.             

As the 33-year old farmer puts it, “I’m being subjective, it’s my own experience as a younger apple grower — but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the weather is changing. I would say it is likely that these severe events that affect apples have always been going on, but the extent and frequency of that could very well be increasing.”

He thinks other farmers might agree. 

“But farmers are not in a university pondering the greater issues; they see that it makes their feed cost more or there are more heating costs for livestock.”

Ferguson’s Orchards is a family-owned business, with about 300 acres of trees in three locations: Eau Claire and Galesville in Wisconsin and Lake City, Minn. It’s the biggest apple grower between the Rocky Mountains and Lake Michigan, according to its website.

Ferguson was featured in Amanda Little’s wide-ranging book, “Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World,” published in June by Harmony Books ($27), as one example of someone adapting to the curveballs thrown by Mother Nature.

Quite a few Wisconsin farmers, including Ferguson, are taking note of changing climate conditions — the same conditions that University of Wisconsin scientists are documenting and studying.

And, year by year, the farmers and the folks in Madison are figuring out how best to deal with the changes — and how to modify farming practices to work a little better with Mother Nature to ensure a continuing food supply for our tables.

Fighting freeze and hail

Farmers get up early, so it was during a 6 a.m. phone conversation when Ferguson —who has a law degree but prefers farming — described some of the damaging weather he’s been dealing with over the last several years.

“In 2012, the vast majority of the Midwest had a devastating freeze to apple crops, and then in certain years in between there have been hailstorms, and 2016 was another freeze,” he said. Spring freeze and hail throughout the summer and fall, he added, “are the two main perils” for apple growers.           

During the freeze of 2012, 90% of the total crop was lost. Damage was especially severe because the trees had blossomed three to four weeks early.  

In an effort to protect themselves from a repeat of that kind of loss, the Fergusons have installed three frost fans — to the tune of about $35,000 apiece.

“If you are at full bloom, when all the flowers are completely open, it would only have to get down to 28 degrees and you’d start losing significant amounts,” he said. “So if you get down to 25 or 26 degrees, everything is gone.

“A frost fan can pull warmer air down from the inversion layer above — and can warm it up 4 to 5 degrees. That doesn’t sound like much, but now in the context of one to two degrees, it becomes very important.”       

To guard against hail, they have installed special trellises that will be able to hold hail nets at some point in the future. 

Putting in the nets is expense, so it becomes “an ongoing cost-benefit analysis,” he explained. “There are some varieties it doesn’t pay to do, there are some that it does —it’s just another form of insurance, basically.”

Drones, such as the one that took this mid-fall photo of the Ferguson property, can help with mapping and monitoring of conditions in an orchard.

Drones, such as the one that took this mid-fall photo of the Ferguson property, can help with mapping and monitoring of conditions in an orchard. (Photo: Submitted photo)

Lucky break, smart drones

It’s both good and bad that they have orchards in four counties in two states: “It gives us great diversification for weather event separation, so if it hails in one place hopefully it doesn’t in another. But, at the same time, that usually means that one of those places gets something.”

Sometimes — like this past winter when Wisconsin experienced record low temperatures — things turn out fine: “We didn’t know what to expect because most of our trees come from places like University of Minnesota where they develop cold-hardy varieties, with the root stock, but even they had not tested the trees to that cold. It was literally possible that we could wake up in April and May and everything would be dead or everything would be OK. Luckily, everything was OK.”

Technology is doing its part, too, with drones mapping and monitoring conditions in the orchard. The information gathered by the drones can even be used to allow farmers to customize their practices to a particular row or a particular tree.

“So if you have to spray something, you’re not spraying in the conventional way throughout the entire orchard because only this little part needs it,” he said.

All of these measures — and he includes crop insurance in the mix — “help us stay in business and help us be able to feed the world for upcoming years,” he said, referring to the question posed in “Fate of Food” as to how we will feed the world’s population in the future. 

Focus on solutions

Amaya Atucha, an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the school’s fruit crop extension specialist, works with farmers and growers across the state.

“They notice that things are changing,” she said, “and we know this also from researchers, from the scientific literature.”

According to Atucha and other experts, Wisconsin is experiencing “an increasing number of extreme weather events,” whether it’s hail — “a terrible thing to happen in the growing season because it’s basically rocks falling over your trees” — or heavy rains. (“When I go up on I-90 north, I see the fields that are still flooded.”)

And she understands the extent to which growers like the Fergusons are going to protect their crops.

“They didn’t have to put those hail nets up in the past — well, now they have to think about those nets,” she said. “And you have to buy the nets, store them, maintain them. It’s not that you can’t deal with these changes, but it’s making things harder and more costly.”

She sees it as the responsibility of the scientific community to point out the effects of climate change, but she also believes “that there is no point in going out and pounding and pounding the message that this is climate change. Instead, we need to find solutions, to help the growers find ways to still be able to produce fruit and to be able to live off producing fruit here in Wisconsin.”

One of many possible solutions, she said, is to use traditional genetic breeding to develop more resilient and resistant cultivars that can withstand upcoming challenges such as new diseases or high precipitation.

Erratic weather

For over 30 years, Mike Miles and his wife, Barb Kass, have lived on Anathoth Community Farm in Polk County. It’s a called a community farm, he explains, because it’s owned by a land trust “dedicated to doing things that promote the common good.”

Together with his brother, who is next door, they manage 80 acres, mostly pasture and woods, raising livestock and growing vegetables.           

“For the last 12 years, we’ve been focused on climate change and regenerative agriculture,” he said, noting that this all happened after reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.

This past summer, a destructive storm made climate change seem all the more real.

“On July 19, we got hit by that storm that came through, and we suffered a serious direct hit on our farm with about 15 minutes of 100-mile-an-hour winds, and probably a small tornado or two. It blew our woods to pieces.

“So, yes, we’ve seen climate change. I’ve been out here for 33 years watching weather events change — they are becoming more erratic and the storms are becoming stronger.”         

But while the farm is still being put back in order (you can see what’s going on with its various projects at his YouTube page), everyday life continues.

“We do beef, we do chickens for meat and eggs, we do pigs, and we do maple syrup and gardening — we have a really big garden,” he said, noting that they sell to people in the area.

Animals on the move

“Managed rotational grazing is a big part of what we do,” he said. “We have eight steers and we literally move them twice a day, sometimes three times a day if the growing conditions are really good.”

It’s a practice that aims to mimic the way ruminant animals grazed before civilization fenced them in.

“So ruminant animals would sweep across huge areas in huge numbers, grazing grass, pooping, peeing — and then leaving that area so there would be a rest period,” he said. “And that’s how soils were built up over the planet through that process.

“There are too many people in the way now, but you can mimic those herd migrations with portable electric fences. And when you do, you are building soil and making soil more able to store carbon and water.”

One benefit to regenerative practices is that “you don’t need a lot of farm infrastructure like barns and sheds and silos and big equipment. You don’t need a manure spreader; the animals distribute it themselves. All you need is portable electric fence and a supply of water.” He added that in winter, the animals live outside, but they have a place where they can get out of the wind.

To show that this sort of intensive, managed rotational grazing can be scaled up, he mentioned several large operations, among them Brown’s Ranch outside Bismarck, N.D., where hundreds of animals are managed in this way.

Teaching other farmers

Miles doesn’t keep all this knowledge to himself. He’s is on the board of directors of the Northwest Wisconsin Graziers Network, a group that does “grazing education for farmers, but we also work with lake associations and municipalities doing farmer-led watershed management.”

From his perspective, “it’s the farmer’s job to keep agricultural runoff on their land where it belongs. And that’s whether they are farming conventionally and using synthetic fertilizer and pesticides or if they are organic and using manure.”

He describes Anathoth farm as “kind of an independent research station.”

“I work with the UW-Extension people. We have field days out here, we have pasture walks out here, and we’ve had the University of Wisconsin and the University of Minnesota here to do a joint workshop on something called sylvopasture at our place.”

In sylvopasturing, trees, pasture and livestock are intentionally combined. Trees can be planted into pasture or forest can be thinned for pasture — and both methods are going on at Anathoth.

Estimates are that pastures mixed with trees sequester five to 10 times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless. Another plus is extra income when fruit or nut trees are planted. And, of course, the cows get to enjoy the shade.

No simple answers

Diane Mayerfeld, an extension outreach specialist in sustainable agriculture for UW-Madison, says the challenges facing farmers, and the solutions, are complex.

For instance, a longer growing season might seem like a plus, but heavy rain in spring can wash away that advantage.

“We have a shorter winter, our average last frost and average first frost have moved apart,” she said. “So that has allowed farmers to plant longer-season varieties of corn and soybeans and those longer season varieties have higher yields.”

The downside comes because there are times — as with year’s “really wet spring that went on for a really long time” — when the farmers can’t count on the longer season because they can’t plant early.

She’s encouraged by the “across the board” interest in soil health because adding more organic matter to the soil equates to more carbon sequestered, “and that’s carbon that can’t be in the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide.”

Healthy soils are also “more resilient,” better able to absorb heavy rain, for example.

And, overall, this outreach specialist sees a growing number of farmers who  “are willing to talk about their practices not only to adapt to climate change, but also to do their piece to mitigate climate change.”

Anne Schamberg, Journal Sentinel

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