Farmers in the Red River Valley area of northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, and up in adjacent areas of Manitoba province, have nearly completed harvesting their wheat and barley crops and are now watching corn and soybeans mature for a fall harvest.
The mere mention of corn and soybean crops in the northern valley is a new experience. This was always wheat, barley, potato, sunflower and sugarbeet country. Until the past decade, most attempts at growing corn were geared to making silage to feed livestock, not to grow corn for the commodity markets.
This has retired farmers in coffee shops all across western Minnesota pondering the risks of planting crops that require longer growing seasons and more moisture than the traditional wheat and barley crops.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great amount of research completed at this point to resolve those countryside coffee shop arguments.
How much is the northward march of corn and soybean production a result of climate change? How much of it can be attributed to improved seed genetics? And for that matter, how much of the changed genetics is in response to climate change?
“We just don’t know,” answers Mark Seeley, the University of Minnesota’s Extension Climatologist and Meteorologist with the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate.
Scientists at Minnesota, the University of North Dakota, and the University of Manitoba have explored parts of those questions, Seeley said. The Canadians have probably done the most work, he added. “But we know there has to be some combination of genetics and climate involved here.”
Paul Bullock, a soil scientist at the University of Manitoba, outlines current research projects underway north of the border that should show impacts of weather and climate influences on crops in the years ahead. That survey of projects can be found here
In general terms, scientists consider several likely impacts from climate change that do include longer growing seasons but with more variability to weather. That means excessive rains and drought may become more of a problem in the years ahead than has been the historical case in the Upper Midwest. We may be seeing a snapshot of that this fall.
The Minnesota office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service (USDA) on Monday issued its weekly crop/weather report that found Minnesota crops progressing behind the normal pace for early September.
The small grain harvest of spring wheat, barley and oats were on par with the five-year average for those crops although the harvest was completed by this date a year ago. Corn, soybeans, canola and potatoes are maturing behind the five-year average.
In terms of field conditions for the various major corps, field inspectors found potatoes, sunflowers and sugarbeets to be in the best conditions while only 63 percent of the state’s corn crop and 64 percent of the soybeans were rated in good to excellent condition. What’s scary for the livestock industry is that only 36 percent of pastures were considered to be in good or excellent condition.
Disparities in growing conditions were also noted across the state in topsoil moisture conditions. Inspectors found that 12 percent of the state’s farm and forest lands were very short of moisture and 35 percent was listed as short. A scant majority (51 percent) was listed as having adequate moisture to sustain plant growth while only 2 percent was determined to have surplus topsoil moisture – a condition that can also harm plant growth or interfere with the harvest this fall.
The most unusual quirk in that soil moisture profile is that the 2 percent surplus finding is along the Canadian border in northwest Minnesota – an area of the state that has far more experience with dry conditions this time of year. The weekly Minnesota crop weather reports can be found at http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_State/Minnesota/Publications/Crop_Progress_&_Condition/cw090808.pdf
Looking ahead, people involved with agriculture and the food industries can hope that resistance to research and discussions about global warming and climate change will dissipate after January when a new administration and new Congress moves into Washington. Meanwhile, Minnesota has a lot riding on what changes are now occurring, and it needs to know what future economic and environmental changes are coming.
If Minnesota is to reinvigorate its rural economy on ground-up, value-added processing, we need to know what crops farmers will likely grow in the years ahead. If Minnesota is to build on its existing food and agricultural industries, it needs to know the likely impacts climate change may bring to positioning plants and people, transport of products or commodities, and it must know future research needs for the state in periods of transition.
Let’s hope that federal research dollars will enable most of this needed research going forward. For it to be especially useful for Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, however, we must maintain the research capacity to attract research dollars and apply them to our backyard and environment.
The latter won’t be easy given the condition of Minnesota’s state budget. And it may take fresh looking by policy makers and academic administrators to find new, cost-effective ways to collaborate on research with experts at North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota, and with our hemispheric cousins across the border at the University of Manitoba.