To make that more tangible, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that in 2019, the U.S. experienced 14 separate billion-dollar disasters, including three major inland floods, eight severe storms, two tropical cyclones, and one wildfire event. They note that, “2019 mark[ed] the 5th consecutive year in which 10 or more separate billion-dollar disaster events have impacted the U.S.” That same year, agricultural producers reported that they were unable to plant crops on more than 19.4 million acres of land. Seventy-three percent of those acres were in 12 Midwestern states where commodity crop growers were impacted by heavy rainfall and flooding.
Farmers are nimble and used to the whims of a life in deep relationship to natural systems. But the unpredictability, the extremes, and the catastrophes are getting to be too much. While the data is slim on farmers ceasing operations due to climate-related stress, in my small community, I know farmers who are shutting their operations down this year, moving to more water-secure land, or transitioning to cannabis to decrease the number of acres under irrigation and increase profit. It’s likely the water table will be even more affected as more and more rolling hills are planted with young, thirsty grape vines.
As I enter the growing season, the impacts of the stress are visible on my face, and in my sleeping patterns. The daily calculations involved in figuring out how to get enough water to produce crops are exhausting. My farm workload remains the same, but I am looking for additional ways to supplement my income through teaching, consulting and writing, to help mitigate the financial hit I will inevitably take.
Amidst all of this, I am grateful to be farming using the principles of agroecology—an approach to farming credited to Indigenous land stewards and peasant farming systems focused on building soil, conserving water, fostering diversity and farming in relationship with the ecosystem, not in dominance of it. My topsoil won’t blow away in a dust storm this summer, because the soil is always covered in mulch. If I lose a crop to extreme heat or cold, I will have other things to harvest because my farm is so diverse. My land stands a chance in a drought because after years of building soil and eliminating tillage, it acts like a sponge when the raindrops do come. My farming comrades across California, will come to my aid if a small crisis hits because I have built a deep, caring agricultural community around myself.
There is a growing contingent of farmers like me who can lean on their stewardship practices and farming networks to support them as the climate crisis bears down. Many of these farmers hope to be part of the web of solutions. But that is not the story for much of this country’s farm systems. In fact, the shift toward extractive, colonial agriculture has contributed to the warming of the planet, as carbon leaves the soil and enters the atmosphere with every pass of the tractor. As soil scientist Jane Zelinkova wrote in the recent anthology All We Can Save:
Over the last twelve thousand years, we have lost about 133 billion metric tons of carbon from this soil, striped away as humans converted native grasslands and forests into agricultural fields and rangelands, roads, and cities. The main driver of this loss—the plow—revolutionized farming and fundamentally altered the trajectory of human history.