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Farming Resilience

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Anne Schwagerl, Vice President of the Minnesota Farmer’s Union

We asked the vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union to write about how emerging technologies and new markets are working to help Minnesota family farms address the pressures of climate change and corporate farming.

 

If you had told me as a teenager that one day I would be a full- time grain farmer and helping lead a statewide farm organization, I would have laughed. I grew up in Rice and Scott counties, but had no farming experience.

I was living in Florida, working a weekend meat-packing gig to help pay for my wedding, when the farming bug bit me. My now- husband was a graduate student; I was a nonprofit employee. We learned — while packing orders and delivering pastured meats to local farmers markets — that working side by side, outdoors, as our own bosses, was incredibly fulfilling. We enjoyed spending a long, sweaty day together, feeding families with locally raised meats.

In 2012, we decided to move to Browns Valley in western Minnesota to transition into his family’s farming operation.

Today, I serve as vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union (MFU), which takes me around the state, meeting with farmers and ranchers who raise a variety of products. The membership of the Farmers Union is as diverse as our farmers across the state; the products produced on Minnesota farms range from apples to yak. Minnesota farmers are national leaders in producing sugar beets, green peas, soybeans, hogs, and turkeys. The scale of production from union members ranges from producers who earn a living on a half acre of tillable land to producers who farm over a thousand acres.

When I travel across the state to meet with family farmers, I hear consistent themes in the challenges they face: accessing increasingly expensive land, accessing capital, the impacts of corporate consolidation, and the existential threat of climate change.

As organic grain farmers, we work year-round, primarily outdoors. Especially in the last few years, the air quality from Canadian wildfire smoke has been harsh. Even on days with terrible air quality, farmers and livestock do not have the option to stay inside.

Food producers are adapting to farming in a changing climate in many ways. Most farmers have conservation and stewardship approaches: using minimal strip-till and no tillage systems to produce grain, or adopting managed grazing plans for livestock. Many producers are using precision agriculture technology, or are planting cover crops to provide armor on soils year-round.

Agriculture in 2024 is vastly different than it was when I began farming. I love being a farmer now because of the shift I am seeing. When I started, there tended to be only a few ways a producer could earn a living. In my case, that was primarily through the sale of grain. Today, however, there are additional revenue streams: leasing land for wind or solar energy production, and programs that enable farmers to work with others to reduce the carbon footprint in the food chain.

In some cases, for example, a farmer is partnered with corporations outside of the agricultural system — like Delta Airlines or Microsoft — to offset that company’s carbon footprint. Farmers are paid a premium for their products, or a flat fee per acre, to implement new practices on their operations, such as sinking carbon into the soil by incorporating cover crops or livestock on their land and other practices that reduce the carbon intensity of the crops grown on their land. Many of these private programs have an element of public investment through the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities program.

Combining Agriculture and Sustainability

While farmers continue to confront the challenges of climate issues, the farmer’s voice has not always been heard in important conversations about what to do. When I attended the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference (aka COP25) in Madrid on behalf of young farmers engaged with the World Farmers Organization, it was one of the first years that agriculture was formally recognized as a stakeholder in negotiations.

Farmers can play a critical role in mitigating the climate crisis, and farmer-led organizations, such as the National Farmers Union within the World Farmers Organization, have pushed to have our perspectives heard and included in these discussions about solutions.

In Minnesota, farmer voices were key in developing the state’s Climate Action Framework, which was released in 2023. I served on the Governor’s Advisory Council on Climate Change when the Framework was created. In tandem with the Governor’s Climate Subcabinet, the council created a multi-stakeholder engagement process to hear from people in the agricultural community about how our lands can be a part of the solution.

Farmers are working to reduce emissions using emerging technologies such as green ammonia, which is fertilizer produced using wind energy instead of fossil fuels. This can lower the carbon intensity of corn, wheat, and other small grains by up to 90 percent, according to a recent study by the University of Minnesota. There are new management approaches designed to help improve resilience for increased storm intensity, water management, and biodiversity challenges.

Cost for equipment remains a barrier for many farmers. A no-till drill, for example, comes with a price tag of $80,000 to $100,000; I am grateful that we were one of the lucky farms awarded a grant in late 2023 that will allow us to purchase one.

I still have much to learn. The production systems of Minnesota family farms continue to be changed as we strive to be better stewards to the land and the people and animals for whom we grow food.


Healthy Collaborations

Adopting soil health practices often requires expensive and specific pieces of equipment. Minnesota leads the nation with first-of-their-kind Soil Health Financial Assistance Grants. These grants go to farmers wanting to add equipment to their farm that will improve soil health — such as a no-till drill, a drone for seeding cover crops, and more. Lawmakers created a pilot program in 2022, and expanded the program in 2023, to create a cost-share opportunity to offset those costs. Demand continues to exceed funding, however, reflecting the desire across the state from farmers to implement new practices that protect natural resources.

Dr. Heidi Roop’s team at the University of Minnesota Climate Adaptation Partnership is working on climate models to help local farmers make informed decisions about how to improve the investments they are making into Minnesota’s food production. The Climate Adaptation Partnership has recently added new staff to work with farmers and rural communities on planning and implementing for climate resilience.