In North Dakota, A Changing Climate Threatens Crop Diversity

Mar 23, 2020
Originally published on March 23, 2020 8:35 am

As Doyle Lentz drives out over his farm, just 20 miles south of the Canadian border, he expects to see snow and ice for miles. This is January, after all, in Rolette County, North Dakota. But this year, the horizon is broken up by fields of windblown wheat, piles of snow-packed, cut canola and stands of corn and sunflowers.

“That whole field should have been waist high when we harvested. As the rains and snows came, it just continued to flatten it. And of course, the quality just became terrible,” says Lentz, who farms around 6,000 acres that also includes barley and soybeans. “Consequently, it wasn’t worth harvesting. We hope to burn it, but with all the rain and snow, we don’t know what we’re going to do with it.

For the last 40 years, the crops grown in North Dakota have been changing. Since the 1980s, the state has been one of the most crop diverse in the country. But a number of factors go into a farmer’s decision about what to plant and as unpredictable weather becomes more frequent, one of those is the changing climate.

“It’s always in the back of our minds. It seems like the wet is wetter and the dry is drier, and it definitely plays into what we’re going to plant,” Lentz says. “Wheat and barley have got to be in early. They don’t like going in late … so we have to adjust by growing these other crops.”

Other crops like corn and soybeans have seen a significant increase in North Dakota in the last 20 years.

Traditionally, the 100th meridian, a line of longitude that runs right through the Great Plains and that cuts North Dakota from top to bottom, was a natural dividing line between the arid, lighter soil to the west and the rain-soaked, heavier black dirt in the Red River Valley, on the state’s border with Minnesota.

Certain crops, like durum wheat, sunflower and barley grow better out west, while others like navy beans, kidney beans, potatoes and sugar beets lend themselves to the climate in the east.

“That 100th is kind of the guideline. Farming changes on the other side of it. To the west, the soil’s a little bit lighter,” Lentz says. “The soil’s just different here.”

But the climate in North Dakota is changing. Researchers studying weather models along the 100th meridian say the more arid climate will push east during this century. But in North Dakota, the wet climate of the east has begun moving west.

Now, the 100th meridian in North Dakota sees more precipitation annually than it did 20 years ago, with more volatility making it hard for farmers to plant and harvest during increasingly narrow windows of time.

So some are beginning to change the crops they grow.

Across the state, the number of acres planted in barley, wheat and sunflowers has dropped by nearly 12 million acres since 1997, while corn and soybeans have added more than 7 million acres, now making up nearly a third of crop acres in the state, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The data varies from county to county. But in the seven counties that sit along the 100th meridian, the picture is clear. There are three times more corn acres than the state average in counties along the meridian, and 10 times as many soybean acres.

Ryan Pederson remembers what it was like two decades ago when North Dakota farmers grew very little corn and soybeans. The first year he put corn in on his farm, just south of Lentz’s, it didn’t go well.

“I came home from grad school in Indiana, where I saw everyone raising corn. And, being highly educated after getting a master’s degree, I said, ‘we need to raise corn,’” he says.

What Pederson didn’t consider is that corn seeds of that era needed heat and a much longer growing season than northern North Dakota could offer at the time.

“The corn failed horribly,” he says. “But in the last three years, we’ve started again, gone in slow, but we’ve had success.”

Seed companies have introduced corn hybrids that need up to two weeks less time to grow. But the changing climate has also added days to the growing season, which has made corn and soybeans more feasible, according to Aaron Kennedy, associate professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of North Dakota.

“People are growing corn and soybeans more often up here. Why are they doing that? There’s not one answer to that,” Kennedy says. “What I would say is, the climate is becoming more favorable for it.”

The growing season in North Dakota has increased by 30 days since 1895, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Warmer springs and later fall frosts, combined with innovations in biotechnology, have made it easier to grow corn and soybeans in less traditionally hospitable climates like North Dakota’s.

But while these crops can bring a profit for some, they also bring challenges.

Lentz says the additional moisture in the region brought on a fungus in wheat and barley called scab. They’ve been fighting it since the late 1980s, and it wiped out durum wheat from the north-central part of the state, an area once called the “Durum Triangle.”

As corn has grown in popularity, researchers have made an unsettling realization.

“The main thing that causes scab is corn residue,” says Lentz. “So as this corn thing has moved west, so has the scab.”

Lentz says scab causes vomitoxin in wheat and barley, which reduces crop yields, can make animals and people sick, and causes foaming in beer.

“Minnesota and North Dakota were the number one,” says Lentz, referring to U.S. barley production. “Guess what happened? Corn came. Now we’re moving to Idaho and Washington with barley, and guess what’s happening in Idaho? The California dairies are moving there. They’ve had vomitoxin in their barley for the last three consecutive years. I’ve been out there, and I’ve warned these guys, ‘If you’ve got corn, you’re gonna have a problem.’ And guess what? They’re having a problem.”

It’s hard to pin down what has had the biggest impact on crops in North Dakota. The climate is a factor, as are developments in seed technology. At the same time, markets have shifted, making it perhaps a little easier to profit from big commodities like corn and soybeans rather than so-called specialty crops, like barley and dry beans. All the while, and partly in response, fewer and fewer people are farming on larger and larger swaths of land.

Driving across Lentz’s farm, it’s hard to tease out how the changing climate is impacting the local farming landscape. And Lentz is also thinking about how the changes in that landscape impact his community, as more of his neighbors get out of farming altogether.

“There’s not a lot of young people. We live in a very isolated area. I’m 125 miles from a Starbucks,” he says. “It’s the social structure I’m probably more concerned about. Healthcare. We’re getting too little or no healthcare where we live. Everything we do is 200 miles away. So those are the things that worry me, just as much as the farming.”

All of this has had an impact on the identity of the state and the vitality of these little communities that dot the northern plains. Lentz says he worries about the future of the region.

“We farm in four townships, and there’s not a kid in four townships,” he says. “These are the things we talk about, about the future of ag here. How are we going to maintain schools and hospitals, when we don’t have any people left? We just don’t have them ... It’s not going to be the farming that kills us.”

Christopher Walljasper is a journalist based in Chicago. 

This is the first story in a five-part series, "Change at the Climate Divide," about climate change and the Great Plains.

This reporting project was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center.

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