Hit Hard By Drought, Farmers Get Creative

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In Goodhue, Minnesota, 60 miles southeast of the Twin Cities, the crops and pastures aren’t nearly as tall as they should be this time of year. I’m riding in an ATV next to Jared Luhman, a 27-year-old farmer, bouncing across the 700 acres where he and his family raise red angus cattle under the Grass Fed Cattle Co. brand.

The Luhmans’ farm is covered in grasses and other perennials thick on the glacial hills. In some places, the clover is still blooming. In others, the grasses have been nibbled and tamped down by cattle, creating a green cover for the soil. “It hasn’t been easy," Luhman tells me over the buzzing engine. “But we’re doing better than most.”

Sure enough, out past their property line, the hills are noticeably drier and drained of color. By way of explanation, Luhman recounts a flash thunderstorm that he and his father had been caught in the night before. As the rain came down, Jared walked over and saw water “running in streamlets” from the neighbors’ drought-hardened soybean fields, taking valuable topsoil with it. On his own farm, the rain soaked into the soil, feeding healthy pasture.

The reason for the disparity was that the Luhmans have been using what’s known as regenerative agriculture, a collection of farming techniques intended to make the land more resilient. Among other things, the practice includes using cover crops to protect the soil, reducing tillage and artificial fertilizers, employing rotational grazing, and focusing on restoring soil health.

Such measures won’t solve climate change, of course. But they’ve already made farms more resilient to floods, droughts and rising temperatures. Increasingly, scientists think regenerative farming could be one of the best tools available to manage extreme weather in the years ahead. The question is whether it will be enough.

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Although summer has barely begun, already 48% of the continental U.S. is experiencing drought conditions. In farm country, the effects run deep. Some farmers are choosing not to plant; others find themselves pitted against endangered species in a fierce competition for shrinking reservoirs. Some livestock farmers, facing a lack of forage, are culling their herds.

This year, the drought has extended into the Midwest. In normal times, the region is among the most productive on the planet, growing more than 30% of the world’s corn and soybeans, in addition to a wide range of other crops, from Michigan’s cherries to the angus beef raised by the Luhmans. Its Goldilocks climate — “just right” temperature, humidity and precipitation — accounts for many of its advantages.

But so does the soil. Before 19th-century settlers ploughed up prairies, much of the Midwest’s topsoil was a rich aggregate of decomposed grasses and other biological material (like bison droppings). That meant it could easily absorb and retain the water needed for crop growth. Modern farming tore up the native grasses that sustained this process, and left the soil exposed to erosion from wind and rain. When droughts hit the region in the 1930s, much of the topsoil simply blew away, in what became known as the Dust Bowl.

Farmers quickly adjusted. Investments in irrigation rose, for instance, allowing crops to outlast dry, hot conditions. Yet the growth of large-scale farms — propelled by technologies such as pesticides and giant combines — helped obscure the long-term damage wrought by soil erosion. Federal aid programs made things worse by encouraging farmers to simply pursue high yields, rather than manage their land sustainably.

Such short-term thinking has proved to be destructive. A recent study found that the U.S. Corn Belt may have already lost some 35% of its topsoil. That’d be a big problem even without climate change. But as the globe heats up, diminished topsoil makes Midwestern farms significantly more vulnerable.

Without action, the dangers ahead are stark. Warm-season temperatures are expected to rise more in the Midwest than in any other region. Higher humidity and more rainfall in spring will likely wash away even more topsoil, boosting fungus and disease outbreaks. A loss of soil moisture could have devastating consequences for food production — potentially reducing corn yields by as much as 25% from where they’d otherwise be.

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For decades, the Luhmans raised cattle in conventional feedlots. Then, in 1981, the family hosted an exchange student from New Zealand. As he watched them filling their silo with feed, he “told us how stupid we are,” said Jon Luhman, Jared’s father.

Curious, Jon spent 10 months working at a South Island beef-and-sheep station where livestock grazed on a diverse range of perennial grasses. To ensure that the grasses could regenerate, the animals were regularly guided to new forage. The urine and manure they left behind acted as nutrients that helped the land regenerate. Over time, such practices helped ensure the soil became more fertile, retained water better, and was resilient to drought and flooding.

“In New Zealand, they were thinking of the long-term effects of what they’re doing,” Luhman told me.

A few years later, the family applied the same principles to their own farm. Perennial grasses and managed grazing replaced the feedlots. The cattle herds took on the role of ruminants, like the deer that once roamed Minnesota’s prairies, eating grasses and depositing nutrients.

As Jared Luhman drove me around the farm on the ATV, he pointed out neighboring pasture managed via conventional means. Already chewed down, it likely wouldn’t regenerate until next year. The Luhmans, by contrast, were still on their first rotation. Jared pulled up next to the herd of red angus chewing away at a mix of grasses, legumes and forbs. When they noticed us, they became restless, knowing that he’d soon move them to a fresh rotation.

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How big a difference could such changes really make?

“These practices are scalable,” said Kent Solberg, the senior technical advisor of the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota. Solberg said that there are farms measuring in the tens of thousands of acres that are now using regenerative agriculture. On his own farm, he said, the improvements have been undeniable. In the fall, his cattle can now graze 60 to 90 days longer than those on conventional farms.

There’s little doubt the practice is going mainstream. Water-stressed California farmers are adopting regenerative techniques. So, too, are major food processors, including General Mills Inc. and Danone SA. There are celebrity-backed documentaries extolling the concept, along with plenty of bickering about what exactly constitutes “regenerative agriculture” in the first place. Perhaps most important, the Biden administration and influential members of Congress are increasingly keen to promote the practice, and perhaps to end decades of misguided federal policy.

As a start, they should ensure that subsidy programs are reconfigured to reward practices that improve soil health and build resilience to extreme weather, including droughts and floods. Large agricultural producers could help by working with local governments to sponsor apprenticeships and other training on regenerative techniques. Longer-term, research on technology such as modified crops might help farmers deal with the hotter and drier conditions that scientists expect in the years ahead.

Until then, regenerative practices are among the best tools available to adapt America’s farms to a warming climate. Yet even the most ardent supporters admit that the practice has limits. “Regenerative ag builds more resiliency and allows you to go longer and stretch your dollars, especially during harsh conditions like droughts,” said Solberg. “But eventually, drought catches up with everyone.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and "Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale."

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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