City Life

Flooding of cropland, shifting growing seasons wreaking havoc on area farmers

The factors are changing farming practices

Crops are potentially another climate change casualty in Dane County. That's a problem given that the county accounted for 36% of Wisconsin's total agricultural sales from crops and 64% of livestock, poultry and other products in 2017, according to the USDA Census of Agriculture.

Christopher Kucharik, professor and chair of the agronomy department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is well versed on how local farmers are dealing and not dealing with climate change.
Here's how they are impacted, he says:

The earlier onset of spring and later arrival of fall may actually increase the growing season. However, excessive rainfall, big temperature swings and fewer days to work the fields present planting challenges, including delays in planting and the prevention of timely harvests. Delays in planting mean lower yield potential.

Higher water tables resulting from excessive precipitation are causing long-term flooding of farm fields. If excessive rains occur after planting, the risk of crop failure is higher. 

Hotter summers — including more extremely hot summer days and nights — put stress on crops and increase the plants' demand for water. A warming climate challenges crops as the number of days above optimal temperatures increases (days when temperatures rise above 90 degrees). 

Climate change projections suggest the likelihood of more frequent heavy rainfall and droughts. This could translate into more farmers looking at irrigation to adapt — placing more demand on water resources.

Kucharik says he's come into contact with farmers who were either in denial about climate change or didn't want to talk about it. Others say they've always adapted to unpredictable weather, so it's just part of the job. "They've been able to adapt because the change has been gradual," Kucharik says. "But what if we get 50 inches of rain every year?"

Now many farmers are seeing the effects of climate change on the local news, Kucharik says. They are realizing that these events, which are affecting them, are widespread. 

Among these farmers is Jamie Derr, who, with his 80-year-old father, runs the 400-acre Derr Solar Mass farm in the southeast corner of Dane County. Derr knows that climate change has affected him and other farmers. "The rains are heavier. The rain events are becoming more extreme," he says, making the farming of corn, soybeans, winter wheat and — a new, direct-to-market crop — canola, more difficult.

Exceptionally wet springs — as Dane County farmers experienced in 2013 and this year — prevent early planting. "The earlier the crops go in, the better the yields we get," Derr says. "You're always playing the game. As the days tick away, you're getting less and less."

If it were easy for farmers to combat climate change, they'd be doing it.

"I just wish there was a way to have a good conversation with farmers about climate change," Derr says. Farmers, he insists, "want to do something, but it has to be easy and fit into the existing ag paradigm."

Read more about warning signs of climate change in Madison here.


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