Talk of global warming gets chilly reception in North Dakota farming community
EDITOR'S NOTE -- A recent U.S. report to the United Nations on global warming acknowledges that the phenomenon is real and that people must adapt to "inevitable" change. The Associated Press visited six regions of the United States especially vulnerable to climate change to explore the adaptations that may lie ahead. This is the second story in an occasional series.
------ By MALCOLM RITTER
LAMOURE, N.D. (AP) -- The federal government says global warming has begun, and that it will change the conditions that farmers like Larry Sandness deal with as they raise crops.
But Sandness, who's seen a lot of weather in farming for more than a quarter-century here, isn't so sure about that.
Not that the weather hasn't been a little weird. For about a decade, Sandness and his neighbors have enjoyed unusually long growing seasons and abundant summer rains -- which fits in with the kinds of changes global warming experts are forecasting for this region.
Some farmers have compared it to the corn belt. Sandness's crops were great last year.
Then the climatic gravy train stopped. Take that day in May, for example, when Sandness had to stop planting corn. Because it was snowing.
"Where is this global warming they're talking about?" he joked to his wife, Karen.
The cold also stunned a corn crop Sandness had already planted on another field. There, most seedlings sputtered and died by late May without breaking the surface, having put out little leaves that never saw the sun.
So he replanted that field and saw shoots come up in six days -- just in time to encounter a wicked drought. By July 4, in fields around LaMoure, dried-up heads of wheat were waving like little white tombstones, corn leaves were folding in the afternoon as if praying for rain, and if you stepped on the yellowed grass up by the county courthouse it went "crunch."
But shortly after July 4, the rain came, big-time. One farmer found fields with whitecaps. It was too late to help the wheat and barley. But that and later rains made farmers optimistic that corn, soybean and sunflower yields will be normal.
In the meantime, Sandness and his wife are skeptical that global warming has arrived here yet or will in the future.
"We know it could be happening," Karen Sandness said. But recalling the cold May, she added, "when you don't see it affecting you day to day, it's real tough to take it seriously."
Fact is, you hear comments like that over and over again if you bring up the topic with farmers around LaMoure, a place of rolling prairie where deer gracefully hop fences and white pelicans glide along the muddy James River.
The fact also is that you'll have to bring it up, because it's just not something farmers around here chat about when they play early-morning card games at the Dairy Bar cafe, or share the shade behind the backstop at a late afternoon baseball game for the kids. Mostly, as with Sandness, it's just the butt of a joke on a cold day.
"I don't know where this global warming comes from," said Dan Stroh, 58, who raises soybeans, corn and wheat on a place he took over from his father in 1974.
"We've had hot summers, we've had cool summers ... I think it's just somebody trying to start something."
But couldn't it show up in the future? "If I was guessing," he said after plucking a tick off his border collie, "I'd say no."
Jim Frauenberg, 44, starts each day by consulting the weather data and forecasts that stream into his satellite dish. But he recalls that the snow-filled winter of 1997 seemed like the front door to an ice age, while this past June and early July were frying his bean crops. So who can tell about the future?
"Mother Nature, she's a woman," he concluded. "You ain't gonna tell her what to do. And she ain't gonna tell you what she's gonna do."
Of course, a cold snap doesn't disprove the idea of global warming any more than a few hot summers prove it. North Dakota's climate is notoriously variable, and nobody is claiming that human-induced climate change will suddenly turn it into the tropics.
But the federal government insists that American farmers will increasingly have to contend with the effects of global warming. In a report to the United Nations last May, the government said that if farmers can adapt, the changing climate may actually increase the nation's farm productivity for at least the next several decades. Yields of cotton, soybeans, wheat, barley and other crops could go up.
Here in North Dakota, the government says, global warming could raise temperatures by maybe 3 degrees in the summertime over the next century, and 4 degrees in other seasons. Precipitation could rise by 10 percent in summer and perhaps 25 percent in the winter.
North Dakota farmers might encounter more variability in climate, making adaptation more difficult, the federal analysis says. They might actually have to irrigate more because of increased evaporation. Yet, yields on the wheat, barley and hay crops might rise marginally, the government concludes.
Of course, it's tough to get excited about projections of temperature and precipitation that cover 100 years. Critics say precipitation projections are especially suspect, and that projected temperature increases are tiny compared to the year-to-year variability in the state's climate.
And talk of statewide averages doesn't mean much in a summer like this one, when a farmer near LaMoure could stand by his bone-dry rain gauge in early July and see dark blue clouds about to drop a load just an hour's drive away.
If the federal government wants farmers to adapt, the folks around LaMoure got plenty of practice during the past decade.
It was "just about bliss in farming," said Frauenberg, who racked up several awards for his corn yields. "We've been growing crops just like down in the corn belt... It's been awesome."
The growing season expanded by 10 days, with the killing frost delayed to early October rather than mid-September, said Al Ulmer, the LaMoure County agent.
And rain was abundant. During the growing season, Ulmer said, the county's rainfall often averaged 13 or 14 inches rather than about 9 inches. Even when the total wasn't particularly high, rain just seemed to come along at the right time for crops.
"For 10 years we didn't have to consider dryness, and dryness is a way of life in North Dakota," said organic farmer and gardener David Podoll, who does believe global warming has arrived on the Great Plains.
The extra moisture made Sandness abandon sunflowers. The extra rain encouraged a lethal mold in that crop. It also led to more cattail plants around the countryside, which in turn attracted blackbirds, which sat on sunflowers and picked out seeds, he said.
Meanwhile, poor wheat prices made him turn away from that crop, which was also suffering moisture-related disease around the county. So he moved into corn and soybeans instead, and he wasn't alone. LaMoure County had about 8,300 acres of soybeans in 1993, but about 150,000 acres last year, Ulmer said. And acreage in corn jumped from less than 5,000 acres to way over 100,000 acres, he said.
Corn and soybeans can be profitable, but corn requires lots of moisture, and soybeans must have it at critical times. Both also thrive in warm weather and longer growing seasons, so the new climate regime encouraged farmers to go after them.
Besides moisture and crop prices, the shift was also driven by corn hybrids more suitable for North Dakota, and farm payment provisions of the 1995 farm program, Ulmer said.
Farmers adjusted to those changes too.
What now? As they contemplated the dry months of this summer, Stroh and Sandness said they might go back to raising sunflowers if the dry years return. Sandness said a prolonged dry spell might convince him to take up no-till farming, a technique that preserves soil moisture by disturbing the earth as little as possible. More adjustments.
And as for dealing with any future global warming, Stroh is pragmatic.
"We'll just live with whatever comes and deal with it then," he said. `Whether it comes or not, you go on."
On the Net:
Federal report on global warming: www.epa.gov/globalwarming/publications/car
State-by-state projected impacts: www.epa.gov/globalwarming/impacts/stateimp/index.html
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