Kai Olson-Sawyer channels a farmer’s experience in adaptation.
NB: Bill Mattson, a Minnesota farm owner-operator, sent this letter to his children when he passed along the family farm.
September 6, 2052
Dear Liz, Dean and Mary,
As I near retirement in my 74th year (not soon enough for you worrying about Dad’s old bones), I wanted to offer a brief history of Mattson Acres Farm. Although you always laugh at me when I do it, I dusted off my trusty keyboard to give you a sense of the changes that have befallen our farm over the last 40 years. While I know that Dean is wavering on farming and Mary is off to other things, I want you all, not just Liz, to understand this land’s past because it’s also our family’s past. You also know how much I love keeping records for posterity’s sake (and to tell a good story).
It starts in 2011 when your mom and I were able to save the money to buy that parcel of Nordinger’s land and make it our own after leasing it for years. Besides marrying your mom and witnessing your births, that was the proudest day of my life. Mom always said that Good Thunder was a good luck place to farm.
The first 451 acres was about split between corn and soybean. We were fairly profitable with the high commodity prices in the years before and after acquiring that land. Although prices softened later in the teens, the Big Dry really hurt.
I’m sure you all remember how stressful that time was with record-low rain and unbearable heat from 2021-2025. Those wilted fields left us just eking out an existence with terrible yields that put us in the red. Mom was wise to keep pushing us towards more crop insurance. We also decided to adjust our crop mix, which was our first step down that road.
We were hoping for rain, and eventually it arrived. Once that rain began to fall in February 2026, it never seemed to stop. At first the Big Wet was a boon and made up for the moisture loss and increased crop yields. That year was decent, but the problems were soon rising with the Cobb River. Never will I forget when the Cobb and Maple Rivers met on our land. In all, we saw a record 70 inches of rain in 2027. Over half of our crops were lost to flood and much of the rest succumbed to root rot and fungus.
The amount of water we saw on our land was staggering and something I never could have imagined. The nub of it is that we’re lucky our farm survived. With insurance, your mom’s job at the library and a little luck, we made it.
Water is always a problem, but we knew we had to act in a big way. After all those years of loading up our soil with fertilizers, baked in by the Big Dry, the torrential runoff from our fields picked up that pollution and put it right back into the rivers and groundwater. Good thing I’ve always been adamant about regularly testing our well water because in 2028 and 2029 the nitrate levels were sky high. If we weren’t aware of those toxins and fortunate to afford that reverse osmosis filtration, who knows how badly we could’ve been sickened.
Between our fouled water and the erratic weather, we knew we had to act on what Charlie at extension services called “drought and deluge.” Even though the weather is always changing, it was evident that we couldn’t count on the past for any indication of the extreme weather or precipitation that could strike. Climate change was tearing us up and we decided we were going to fight back (and hard).
Despite uncertainty, we worked with extension to come up with a solid plan. At the time we bought our final thousand acres I’d been playing with different crop mixes. I made a commitment then to see it through. Corn, yellow pea, alfalfa, soy, lentil—I tried it all and more to varying success. Continuous tinkering with the mix and rotation of the crops became so integrated into the health and well-being of our crop yields, our soil’s water and nutrient retention, and the farm’s economic viability, that it’s of the utmost importance for the farm’s resilience. Not only does this fine-tuning concern our cash crops, but it turns out that finding the right mix for our cover crops is just as essential. The diversity of crops that we produce has enabled our farm to withstand the higher temperatures, pests and the whipsaw dry and wet times we experience. Our farm has worked with Mother Nature to adapt to whatever is thrown our way.
The other major undertaking on our farm was taking the land out of production through buffers and the conservation easement in the early 2030s. It was a hard choice and a burden even with USDA grants, but preserving those 300 acres for wetlands helped clean up nitrate pollution from our water and our neighbors’ water downstream. We had the foresight to head off the federal 2041 Green Waters Act and get a handle on our pollution numbers before we had to report them, and as you know, we’ve always beat the nutrient diet standards. It was heartening when the Garcia’s joined our easement, which really started a trend around here. (We’re trendsetters!) Opening that land to duck hunting with assistance from the Waterfowl Association has been a real economic win.
All I can say is that we’ve worked hard to sustain this farm now and into the future. To keep the farm going under constantly changing conditions, we need to watch, learn, act, repeat: It never ends. That’s all we can do to deliver the best possible outcomes. I hope you keep farming to the end of the century.
Kai Olson-Sawyer [email twitter] is a writer and senior research and policy analyst for GRACE Communications Foundation.