Third in a series

Agriculture has been central to Minnesota’s economy and identity from the beginning. Currently, the state ranks fifth in the nation in total agricultural production and is among the top 10 states in more than 20 commodities, including soybeans, sweet corn, sugar beets and turkeys.

Climate changes threaten the very foundation of this economic sector. Minnesota is on track for higher overall precipitation, with floods delaying spring planting. Yet, it will also experience warmer, drier conditions in late summer, “crisping” plants and threatening harvests. In addition to shrinking yield, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and hot temperatures both affect crop quality. Levels of protein and mineral nutrients are lowered in food crops such as wheat, soybeans and rice. And higher temperatures and droughts can cause toxins to accumulate in plants and livestock, threatening the health of both animals and people.

Current “industrial” agriculture accounts for fully 25% of carbon emissions worldwide. The good news is that several of the same practices that would help farmers shield themselves from the worst climate impacts would also contribute substantially to emissions reduction.

At the Climate Reality Project training held in Minneapolis in early August, Professors Tracy Twine (University of Minnesota Department of Soil, Water and Climate) and Henry Pollack (University of Michigan Geophysics, emeritus) described such “regenerative agriculture” practices. These methods include no-till/low-till agriculture, planting cover crops, intercropping and diversity, and rotational grazing.

During his address, Gov. Tim Walz lamented, “Minnesota’s leading export recently has been topsoil!” Plowing increases soil vulnerability to erosion by water or wind, both of which intensify with climate change. Twine and Pollack underscored the inherent value of black topsoil, which holds even more carbon than does vegetation—in fact, soil is the planet’s largest repository of carbon. When soils erode or are stressed by repeat plantings, their carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Twine urged individuals to regard soil as an intricate, living thing—comprising colonies of bacteria and fungi as well as minerals.

With regenerative agriculture, emissions are reduced because less fuel is demanded, and warming is mitigated as atmospheric carbon is captured and stored in the soil. Runoff is prevented, safeguarding water quality. And cover crops reduce or eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilizers.

Perennials (including clovers and kernza wheat) pull tons of carbon out of the atmosphere, year after year. These plants are deeply rooted, cover the earth and absorb nitrates, which protects water.

As with development of renewable fuels, Minnesota appears in the forefront of advancing regenerative agriculture and is home to a variety of public and private initiatives. The U of M’s Forever Green Initiative is one such program. Run in partnership with the USDA, the initiative works to develop perennial crops (like kernza and sunflower), winter annual crops (barley, pennycress) and native woody crops (hazelnuts, elderberries). Such crops work synergistically to enhance both soil and water quality while offering habitat.

A second organization, the Northfield-based Main Street Project, has as its goal a “poultry-centered regenerative agro-forestry system.” It seeks to incorporate free-range poultry (and perennial native crops like hazelnuts and elderberries) into a sustainable regional food system—one accessible to aspiring farmers with limited resources, such as young people and immigrants. Main Street has established prototype facilities (open to the public) and is developing a 100-acre demonstration farm. Interestingly, Main Street funders include not only government agencies but also corporations such as BlueCross/Blue Shield and Allina Health.

A third Minnesota-based organization, the Regenerative Agriculture Alliance, is international in scope and membership. It aims to follow the “natural blueprint of animal and vegetation habits” for both environmental health and higher productivity. Working in co-operation with the Main Street Project, the group assists with regenerative training, marketplace development and land access. Another of its many dimensions is indigenous knowledge recovery.

 

Rita Erickson, PhD, is a White Bear Lake native now living in Scandia. This article is the third in a series of five, based on Erickson’s participation in Climate Reality Project training. The fourth will focus on “Environmental and Social Justice.”

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