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Erin Meier on the impact of climate change on MN Agriculture

Erin Meier is the director of the University of Minnesota’s Southeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, which supports Main Street Project’s sustainable food and agriculture program work. Erin was a featured speaker at the Northfield Area Climate Summit, talking about the impact of climate change on Minnesota Agriculture and strategies for addressing it.

Erin opened with a question: “How can we as food producers figure out a way to work with our changing climate?” She then dove into the specifics of Minnesota climate as it relates to our agriculture here.

Precipitation: Too Much or Not Enough

Precipitation in Minnesota has either been too much or not enough. For example in 2012, seventy six (76) counties reported severe to extreme drought, TEGTM003_Oct13while eleven (11) counties declared flood emergency status. Over the last number of years there have also been an increase in ‘heavy events’ in Southern Minnesota, such as ‘1000-year’ floods.

Floods can have a severe impact on agriculture, especially since they cause soil erosion. Erosion can pull with it the pesticides, fertilizers and other compounds that are connected to the sediment, and can cause damage to water treatment infrastructure downstream.

On the other extreme, not having enough precipitation also affects the quality of soil for seasons to come. The lack of precipitation can affect crop yields and this can lead to an increase in irrigation, which can deplete groundwater supplies.

Temperatures Rising

Temperature fluxes have also been on the news lately. For example on July 19th, 2011 the hottest point on Earth wasn’t Death Valley of Sub-Saharan Africa. It was Moorhead, Minnesota.

The growing season is also lengthening with increased temperatures, as well as production zones. Some plants want to grow in different places and in different soil types that we, as producers, are not used to. This is really an unknown world for those heavily involved in agricultural production. In the short-term there might also be reduced agricultural productivity and crop loss.

Conversations Around Climate Change

Oftentimes, the words ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ have been used interchangeably to what we can do in the face of a changing climate. A Minnesota State 2013 Interagency Climate Adaptation Team Report defines the two terms:

Adaptation is how we implement strategies in a new world so that we can continue to do the things we want to do as human beings, and survive as well as our natural companions, wildlife, and ecosystems.

Mitigation is what we can do to continue to reduce greenhouse gasses, with the goal of lessening the impact of climate change events.

In order for producers, consumers, and everyone involved in agriculture, to figure out a way to work with our changing climate, we must understand these definitions. In this way it is easier to have conversations with others who may not be experiencing the pressure of climate change or who come with a different idea of what it is.

University of Minnesota and the ‘Sustainable Development Partnerships’

The partnerships provide technical support for a variety of innovative farming and food systems projects that aim to control the environment in a way that can sustain growing throughout the year, and create economic opportunities for local communities.

These partnerships also ask questions such as: What’s really working? How do we try to lessen our fossil fuel dependence? How do we look regionally at what farming practices make sense?

Innovative food system designs include those that support growing further into winter. For example, food systems for small and large-scale projects in greenhouses, design alternatives people can use in their backyards, market farming, or large cluster food systems.

What we want to try to do is adapt our systems so that we can react to climate change more quickly.” – Erin Meier

People Working Together

When it comes to fighting climate change, regional food systems are the new laboratories with farmers on the front lines. System disruptions brought about by climate change affect our food supply. We need to make our food supply more resilient, working in collaboration and with thoughtful design of these new adaptive systems, for both small and large scales.

Learn more about what Main Street Project (PDF) is doing to build a resilient food system to revitalize rural communities.

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