Water conservation

Agricultural producers are the key to climate resilience

Minnesota’s climate is already changing, and we’re starting to see first-hand evidence of it. Increasingly heavy rains are hitting private properties and agricultural infrastructure. Recent drought conditions have damaged crops and burned residential lawns for all to see. Hazy skies with smoke from wildfires in Canada and the western United States lowered air quality across much of Minnesota last summer.

John Jaschke, Executive Director of BWSR

However, some climate impacts are less visible than prolonged drought or smoky skies: increased presence of invasive species and reduced soil resilience, to name a few. These impacts are felt on all of our natural and working lands — farms, woodlands, wetlands, grasslands and urban open spaces.

We all have a role to play in solving this critical issue, and Minnesota farmers are on the front lines. Some agricultural practices contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, but farmers are directly affected by the consequences created by the increase in emissions. However, it is not too late to make significant progress. It is in everyone’s interest, especially Minnesota farmers, to implement conservation practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make our landscapes more resilient to climate change.

Farmers are key actors in the process. They are particularly well placed to deal with the negative impacts of climate change on the landscape. Many existing conservation practices already have climate mitigation benefits — we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We must continue and increase the best management practices that many growers are already incorporating into their operations.

Practices that promote resilience

The following practices can help make landscapes more resilient to climate change while also benefiting farmers:

Cover crops and tillage practices. Conservation practices, including cover crops, strip tilling and direct seeding, keep cropland covered and limit soil disturbance from conventional tillage. These practices can significantly reduce erosion and runoff, increase infiltration and water retention, and boost organic matter in the soil, thereby improving soil health and productivity.

Water reserve. Storing water on the ground via structures and retention ponds, restoring wetlands and improving floodplains helps reduce the speed and amount of water entering streams and rivers. This reduces erosion and protects farmland and downstream infrastructure. These practices help silt, sand and nutrients to gradually settle, improving water quality.

Tree plantation. Trees and shrubs can be powerful allies in the fight against wind erosion. Planting shelterbelts — also called windbreaks — provides wildlife habitat and sequesters carbon, in addition to reducing wind erosion.

Perennial crops. Planting perennial crops, including alfalfa and new alternatives such as Kernza (the trade name for an intermediate wheatgrass) and winter camelina, in drinking water protection areas can protect aquifers from nitrate pollution, promote better infiltration, increase carbon sequestration and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

Nitrogen supply. Paying close attention to the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied to agricultural fields can help reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas considered much more potent than carbon dioxide.

Minnesota farmers are encouraged to contact their local Soil and Water Conservation District or Crop Advisor for more information on implementing climate-smart conservation practices. Residents across the state are invited to submit ideas for making Minnesota more resilient to climate change on the Our Minnesota Climate website, climate.state.mn.us.

Jaschke is executive director of the Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources, a role he has held for 15 years. He grew up on a dairy farm in Morrison County, Minnesota.