A family farm in the future

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.

sunk_tractor_usdaThe 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.

Love always,
Dad


beach4_twt Kai Olson-Sawyer [email twitter] is a writer and senior research and policy analyst for GRACE Communications Foundation.

Endlands

flickering greys, the sea
changes: unaltering,
silently, chivvies, switching
the soft primrose sand; one
grain flicks position with
another — impossible, inevitable.

the boats are silent- they
cross this expanse at the end of lands
vikings first, then pirates
raid and burn, settle and farm,
netherlanders, flatland explorers,
hunting the new crossings, echo
the dykes and drains- invisible tracks,
eat their way into the soft marshes,
expose the rich peats,
carve and create out of nolands.

inlets creeks and badlands,
flatlands perfect
for creeping smugglers lands
illicit acts in shifting edges
land of no land
sea of no sea

estuary

but the sea can rise,
crawl towards the sky,
the moon cries, desires,
dragging it over land hand made land

water
energetically, without mercy,
rushes over the flatlands,
washes away the coastlands,
demolishes all in its pathlands,
creates new edgelands —

nomanslands


catherine-jonesCatherine Jones is a musician, writer and artist based in the west of England but studied and lived for 8 years in East Anglia, the fens and flatlands of the east coast of England. Living near the coast in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, for 3 of those years really brought home to her how fragile the coastal environment is and how a very small sea level change would have devastating results. Much of her writing harks back to her memories of living and working in an unstable environment. She originally studied music but for some reason became a lawyer for twelve years, during which time she constantly wrote statements and affidavits, not really realising that actually what she enjoyed was telling a story. She rediscovered her need to write while completing a Masters in Fine Art, during which time she illustrated her dissertation with poetry. Since completing her Masters exactly a year ago, she’s been busy writing, teaching piano and singing, making art situations, mixed media pieces and installations, and dealing with two lively tweenage boys. She’s been an environmentalist since she was a child, growing trees from acorns and conkers on her windowsill and worrying about saving the whales when she was about 7 years old.

hourofwrites* This vision was submitted for the “Life plus 2m” prompt at Hour of Writes, which carries out weekly, peer-reviewed writing competitions.

Soil will provide future food security

John Simaika warns that soil erosion is likely to be a big source of food insecurity.

As seen from space, we live on a blue planet – a planet full of water – with a little green and brown here and there. A closer look, however, reveals that especially around coasts, there is often a brown soup coming from streams entering the ocean, for example off the east coast of Madagascar (Green & Sussman 1990). The majority of times, this is associated with land use, starting far upstream of the wide rivers that then carry once fertile soils, accumulated over hundreds of kilometers, into the oceans. A lot of this soil will have been washed into streams by a process known as erosion, the natural enemy of soil formation. Erosion can be water-based or wind-based. In most cases, water erosion is of concern. In a world where the weather is predicted to become more extreme, soil erosion by water will, for many reasons increase significantly.

But why should we care about ‘dirt’? Well, because dirt is alive, an ecosystem of its own, that is so diverse, that it carries a plethora of organisms in just a teaspoon. In that teaspoon will be bacteria and fungi, part of the so-called microfauna, and nematode worms, mites and springtails, to name a few of the larger mesofauna. This might not seem all that significant, but soil ecosystems are responsible for the global storage and release of CO2 (Guo & Gifford 2002), a greenhouse gas known to cause global climate change (IPCC 2014). It is the capacity of soils overall to store carbon that aids in mitigating climate change (Lal 2004), but this capacity, and its response to a changing climate is not yet well understood (Frey et al. 2013). With limits on time for action, soil conservation and the creation of carbon sinks or pools is high on policy agendas.

Apart from their role in climate change mitigation, soils are responsible for good plant growth and thus maintain animal life, including human life. Soil quality, topography and microclimate are essential ingredients to plant crop health and thus good quality food. The effects of climatic change on soil per se are complex, as they depend on soil type (the physical composition), topography, biological soil composition (those little microbes and invertebrates mentioned earlier), ecosystem type (for example grassland or forest), local climate, the direction of rainfall change, land use and land management (Blankinship et al. 2011; Panagos et al. 2015).

Rainfall patterns and intensity in particular, are a direct concern: While areas that are already dry are predicted to become drier, those that are wet are becoming wetter still (Burt et al. 2016). The real concern is with the intensity of rainfall events. Fewer rainfall days are predicted, with more rainfall overall, in those days. It is the intensity of the rainfall that causes more soil to erode quicker. In a warmer, wetter world, rates of soil erosion will therefore increase (Burt et al. 2016). Already, in Europe, the mean soil loss rate (2.2 t ha-1 yr-1 for non-erosion-prone areas) exceeds the average soil formation rate (1.4 t ha-1 yr-1) by a factor of 1.6. About 12.7% of arable land in the European Union experiences unsustainable rates of soil loss (>5 t ha-1 yr-1), a pattern which is considered a major threat to food security for the European Union (Panagos et al. 2015). Factoring in more intense rainfall events in the future, would translate to higher incidences of crop damage (IPCC 2012) and to even greater losses of soils and carbon stocks across greater agricultural landscapes (Reichstein et al. 2013).

With about 11 billion people to feed, agriculture will have to intensify, presumably on smaller pockets of land, as increasingly erosion and salinization take their toll on the landscape. Anti-erosion measures will have to be implemented such as reduced or no tillage, the planting of cover crops, keeping plant residues at the soil surface, the maintenance of stone walls, and the increased use of grass margins and contour farming (Panagos et al. 2015). Urban populations will have to adapt, and new innovative ways of making food in cities will have to take precedence. Urban agriculture might take the shape of roof-top and balcony gardens, and hydroponic installations. Urban gardens and public parks could also increasingly play a role in food security, as they will be increasingly used to grow food. It could also mean that our reliance on high impact foods such as red meat will have to take a backseat to eating insects (van Huis 2013). Food production in the city would not only add utilitarian value, but potentially decrease greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality (Lee et al. 2015), while increasing the aesthetic appeal of city life, where at least some people would experience a sense of place and being.


John P. Simaika is a Conservation Ecologist at the Department of Soil Science, Stellenbosch University. His research is applied, focusing predominantly on the conservation of insects in land- and water-scapes. He is an active member of the IUCN Freshwater Conservation Sub-Committee, and is Conservation Chair of the South African Chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. To find out more, visit https://johnsimaika.wordpress.com/.