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Seasons of change; USDA climate hubs to help farmers with weather patterns

RURAL CRARY, N.D. — In the six decades Ron Anderson has worked his 1,360-acre farm, he’s seen a lot of changes, including shifts in the North Dakota crop market and changing planting options.

“Without a question the move … to corn and other crops has been the biggest change,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the shift from small grains to corn and soybean crops — which need a longer growing season — in the late 1990s on his multi-generational family farm is partly due to the warming growing seasons and a rise in pest populations which harm the grain crop.

Anderson’s experiences with crop shifts and changing weather patterns are not unnoticed by national and state climatologists, as the factors leading the Anderson family farm to adapt are reflected in a climate assessment about the implications of climate change recently released by the Obama administration.

The U.S. National Climate Assessment outlines state-by-state some of the negative and positive consequences of climate change North Dakota faces in coming years based on what it calls “the most comprehensive scientific assessment ever generated of climate change.”

Though climate change and its causes is a divisive political topic, the Department of Agriculture is taking efforts to help farmers respond to changing weather patterns, such as the long wet cycle that the region seems to be in.

“I’ve farmed here my whole life and so much has changed,” said Scott Anderson, Ron’s son and successor to the family farm. “We’ve lost a lot of land to the water.”

‘Climate hubs’

As a way to help producers in North Dakota and across the nation adjust to changing farming conditions, the USDA will oversee seven new “climate hubs” to offer information about climate conditions, crops and other factors in collaboration with other farm groups.

Justin Derner is the regional hub leader for the Northern Plains region, which serves Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

“It’s a one-stop shop for climate-related information to producers,” he said. “We want to develop points of vulnerabilities in this region producers face to better help them.”

Having been in operation for only four months, Derner said the hub is working with agriculture extension offices and farm agencies in each of the six states to build a regional website for producers to find quick information related to climate change.

“Going through the avenues of extensions offices is our best option,” he said. “They’ve always been the trusted source of producers.”

While the hubs come as a reaction to the National Climate Assessment, some agencies in North Dakota question the report’s conclusions.

“We feel that a lot of these things (in the report) are still in question,” said Pete Hanebutt, director of public policy for the North Dakota Farm Bureau. “It’s dubious science being measured in a limited window of Earth climate history. Farmers are extremely adaptable and will adapt to the situation and markets.”

Climate shifts

Changes in annual precipitation amounts, which Anderson said has created countless water sloughs on his property, decreasing the amount of useable farmland, dates back nearly 20 years ago when precipitation amounts in the state “increased sharply,” North Dakota State Climatologist Adnan Akyuz said.

“Spring temperatures have decreased in the last 30 years that have contributed to steep increases in precipitation,” he said.

Even this month the Grand Forks area has seen a total of 4.42 inches of rain, nearly 63 percent more than the normal June average.

“We have seen in the Red River Valley area the average annual precipitation has changed by 15-25 percent,” Mark Seeley, a soil water and climate professor at the University of Minnesota, said. “It’s almost 25 percent greater than in the early 20th century.”

Scott Anderson said the heavy precipitation the spring has impeded some of his crop growth.

“I’d take the dry weather over the wet weather anytime,” he said.

Seeley’s and Akyuz’s studies also suggest the region is experiencing progressive warming trends leading to longer growing seasons for crop producers.

“The first frost is happening later and later and the last day of spring appears earlier and earlier,” Akyuz said.

Based on his work, Akyuz said the Fargo area sees an additional 17.5 days of growing season compared with 100 years ago.

Changing crops

While warming temperatures and increased precipitation may have negative consequences, longer and warmer growing seasons have allowed North Dakota crop producers to grow more corn and soybeans.

“We’re getting into more beans, where we used to do a lot of smaller crops,” Scott said.

The Andersons aren’t the only ones reveling in the success of corn and soybean production.

Since the late 1990s, soybean exports in North Dakota have skyrocketed, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service.

In 2010, North Dakota raked in $918 million in soybean exports. Similarly, corn and other vegetable exports earned the state more than $1 billion in returns in 2010.

“Prior to 1970, growing 85-day corn was a risky business but today it isn’t,” Akyuz said. “These are some of the positive implications omitted from the (White House’s) report.”

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