“I’m not a climate change guy, but…”: Farmers reckon with new reality in the heartland

Walking over soggy lifeless crops, Brett Adams, a fifth generation Nebraska farmer, paused to catch his breath. Under the dark grey clouds of the Midwestern spring, he was forced to come to terms with an alarming reality: 80% of his farmland was under freezing floodwater.

In March 2019, record-breaking floods inundated America’s breadbasket, a region that’s also a key exporter of corn and soybeans to the world. Much of the Midwest was overwhelmed with floods as a result of torrential rains, frozen ground unable to absorb more water, heavy snowmelt, and a series of extreme weather events that culminated in a major winter storm—described by meteorologists as a “bomb cyclone.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for the management of the country’s levee systems, say they’ve seen record runoff in the past 15 years. This historic flood has made it clear that unpredictable weather patterns are getting more extreme. After massive flooding in 2011, the Corps had to repair five breaches. So far in 2019, they are dealing with 50.

“Our current goal is to close all the breaches by March of 2020,” said Matthew Krajewski, the Readiness Branch Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers. However, if the Corps were to update the levee to newer engineering standards — to help it withstand the rising flood levels predicted in the coming years — they would need funding approval from the U.S. Congress.

A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that the U.S has seen the wettest 12 months on record, with an average of 38 inches of rain falling from July 2018 to June 2019.

Adams put it in personal terms. “When I was a kid,” he said, “an inch of rain, or an inch and a half of rain, was a big deal. Now it’s like we get four- or five-inch rains all the time, or six-inch rains, even. That was unheard of.”

“I’m not a climate change guy, as far as climate change, global warming, or any of that stuff,” Adams said. “But have I seen the weather change in, say, my 20-year farming career? Absolutely.”

In response to these troubling changes, some farmers in Nebraska are considering new solutions to keep their businesses afloat. One of those farmers, Graham Christensen, travels the country discussing a green farming initiative called regenerative farming.