More than a fourth of our food, including most of our fruits and vegetables, comes from California. This is due in large part to its Mediterranean climate, which means it has long hot summers and mild winters. For decades, water was plentiful in California. The snow would melt in the Sierra Nevada mountains, rivers would fill, and farmers could tap into those rivers to water their crops. But climate change is upending these advantages and forcing us to find other places to grow some of the food that has long come from California. In this episode, producer Travis Lux takes a deep dive into one of those places: the mid-Mississippi Delta, an area that includes parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, and Mississippi. And into the story of one Arkansas farmer, Shawn Peebles. Over the last decade, Peebles went from losing his commodity farm to debt, to running a 7,000-acre organic produce farm that could be a blueprint for The New California.Read More
In this episode, we consider what farmers grow—and whether that, too, can change. Producer Rachel Yang introduces us to Don Wyse, who leads a research program at the University of Minnesota that is developing 16 new or improved crops designed to thrive in a world with an unpredictable climate. Yang drills down into one of those crops, a grain called Kernza, a type of wheatgrass. Unlike corn and wheat, which are annual crops whose roots are in the ground only a short time, Kernza is a perennial. You plant it, harvest it, and next year it grows back. So Kernza develops super dense roots that can reach 10 feet into the earth, requiring less water, locking a lot of carbon into the soil, and slurping up twice as much fertilizer as annual wheat, thereby preventing runoff and nitrogen pollution. It is a climate-mitigating super plant. But for perennials like Kernza to replace annual grains, they need to be profitable for farmers to grow. Which means there needs to be a market for those grains. As Yang explains, the Land Institute in Kansas, mission control for Kernza development, received a $10 million grant from the USDA in 2020 to start scaling up Kernza from specialty crop to staple grain. That money has people building out a supply chain by experimenting with Kernza: farmers farming it, millers milling it, and bakers baking it for eaters to eat. Everyone along this supply chain is trying to figure out how to deal with the challenges of this new grain.Read More
Episode 2: Enlisting the Unconvinced
The majority of American farmers don’t believe man-made climate change is real. In this episode, producer Dana Cronin introduces us to some statistically typical American farmers—older, white, male—who grow corn and soybeans. Not for food we eat but as ingredients for processed foods, as feed for livestock, and to make ethanol. One of those farmers, Lin Warfel, may be unconvinced about man-made climate change, but as we learn, farmers like Lin are practical above all else. If doing something differently makes farming and financial sense, they’re likely to embrace it. That’s how Warfel came to be involved in a farmer-led initiative called Saving Tomorrow’s Agriculture Resources, STAR for short. The idea is to change farming practices in ways that safeguard the soil—the foundation of a farmer’s livelihood—for the next generation to farm. But many of the practices endorsed by STAR also help reduce carbon emissions, even if that isn’t the reason the farmers adopt them. It’s the kind of voluntary, meet-them-where-they-are strategy that the USDA and others hoping to convince farmers to join the climate fight say it will take to enlist the unconvinced.Read More
More than 30 years ago, after a drought wiped out his commodity crops, Dave Bishop changed the way he farmed. It was 1988, the same summer that a scientist named James Hansen told Congress that human activity was causing “global warming,” unofficially launching the climate-change era. While Bishop’s neighbors vowed that next year would be better, Bishop decided that he couldn’t go on doing the same thing. He started diversifying the crops he grew and replacing chemical fertilizer with manure. Over the next decade he kept asking himself, “What else can I do?” He began selling what he grew directly to consumers—something virtually unheard of in farm country back then. He didn’t consider what he was doing a crusade against climate change, but rather a way to break free of a system that was squeezing farmers from both ends—forcing them to grow only a handful of commodity crops and sell those crops to a handful of big buyers who set the prices. In this episode, producer Eve Abrams uses Bishop’s story to explore what some farmers in the Midwest are doing to combat climate change—from cover cropping to agroforestry. We need more Dave Bishops if we are going to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions coming from U.S. agriculture. But as Abrams makes clear, change is hard. “Once you have an entrenched system the resistance to change is unbelievable,” Bishop tells her.Read More
Over four episodes, Hot Farm from the Food & Environment Reporting Network tells the stories of farmers who are experimenting with ways to use less water and chemicals, protect their soil and use renewable energy—as well as those who still need to be convinced that climate change is a man-made crisis that requires them to do things differently. It explores the long-running efforts to develop new perennial crops that are better suited to the climate change era, as well as the strategies for getting farmers to grow these crops and consumers to buy and eat them. And we get a detailed look at one possible future for agriculture in America: As California dries out and heats up, people are asking if other regions of the country can take up the slack. Part 1 coming April 12.