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MT Agriculture Adjusting to Changing Climate

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Monday, March 12, 2018   

HELENA, Mont. – For Montana agriculture, the changing climate is not a future possibility – it's a reality that's already here.

Montana Farmers Union board member Erik Somerfeld is a malt barley farmer outside of the town of Power. He's seen yield on his spring planted crops decline over the last five years and lost about a third of his income last year.

Somerfeld says he isn't alone on losses, although he says other farmers don't tend to say climate change is the reason.

"They may not want to admit it's climate change,” he states. “They'll call it something else, 'weird weather' or 'it isn't like it used to be,' those kind of things, but they're seeing the effect. They're seeing a definite decline in their incomes."

A Montana Farmers Union study from 2016 found climate change could cost the state 26,000 farming and ranching jobs and more than $700 million over the next 50 years.

Bruce Maxwell, co-director of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems at Montana State University, helped author the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment. He says the increasing numbers of days above 90 degrees are most concerning for the agriculture sector.

The warmer temperatures are leading to longer and earlier growing seasons, which might seem like an upside. But Maxwell says it actually makes crops more vulnerable to extreme events, which show no signs of decreasing.

"We're still getting killing frosts in the month of May,” he points out. “If you have plants that are growing to the point where they're flowering and they get nailed by this frost, they're really susceptible to that frost. So that can have an even more detrimental effect than if they might start growing a little later than that."

To cope with the changing climate, farmers are taking steps to make their crops more resilient.

Somerfeld says genetics are a promising avenue, in particular, the so-called "stay green gene," which helps crops tolerate colder temperatures earlier in the spring. He says farmers are looking for more ways, too.

"Right now, research is probably the biggest thing that can help us try to avoid some of that without just flat out gambling and hoping you can seed really early and it doesn't freeze out or those kind of things," he states.

Maxwell says the country should take aggressive measures to mitigate climate change, though he points out it will still take decades for the current change to level off.


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