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The Solution

Voices from the Future | Matt Russell

flooded town

The Solution

The Event: When weather patterns change from one extreme to another, such as during the 2012-2013 droughts and the 2019 spring floods in Iowa — when 100,000 acres of Iowa farmland was under water — not every farmer is impacted the same way. Some have it harder during seeding, some during growing season and some during harvesting. Still some have difficulty taking care of the cattle. But the farmers do have at least one thing in common: Planning and timing has become harder for every farmer.

Matt Russell, a fifth-generation Iowa farmer, was concerned about his cattle’s survival during the 2012 and 2013 Iowa drought.

“Grass didn’t grow as it should — it all went dry,” he says. “Therefore, I had to adjust how I managed the cattle.”

Fortunately, though, the rain came back just in time. Otherwise, he would have been forced to sell his cattle.

“Having the wrong weather at the wrong time has become more common during the last decade or so,” Russell notes. “The floods in 2019 didn’t affect us, but I talked to my neighbors, and they said this was the second wettest August during the past five years. It has been too wet for other farmers to harvest so far. The crop isn’t really ready. The rainfall in rest of the state isn’t helping at all.”

Over the past 15 years that Russell has owned his farm, he’s fund the calling more and more difficult.

“Planning has become more challenging — when to get the hay made, get tomatoes planted or rotate my cattle through the pastures — because the weather patterns don’t follow old cycles anymore,” he explains. ”So, for us farmers, it isn’t so much about one extreme weather event or disaster that is causing problems. It’s the whole pattern.”

Russell is a firm believer in the climate crisis. But he also believes that farmers can be part of the solution, not act as victims. Nor does he believe that farmers should be responsible for hastening the problem.

In his own case, Russell has made a handful of sustainable changes.

“When my husband and I bought the farm 15 years ago, we changed the farm acres from soybeans and corn to permanent pasture,” he says. “We also use rotational grazing, which enables the grass to grow and regenerate forage for the cows. And, because we don’t use any industrial fertilizers, we produce very little or no nitric oxide that would get released into the soil on our farm.”

Although Russell feels frustrated by the challenges he and other farmers face, he does have hopes that small and large changes alike might make for a more sustainable future in the industry.

Russell hopes that the government recognizes the transformational changes that are happening in farming – for example carbon farming — by supporting them.

“The Trump administration has proposed $28 billion over two years as subsidies to deal with the trade problems in agriculture,” Russell notes. “What if we spent that amount of money for farmers to further develop carbon farming more? With that money we would get lots of results.”

Russell compares carbon farming to planting a tree. “The tree uses carbon dioxide when it grows and it gets locked into the tree itself,” he explains. “We could do this intentionally and manage the whole farm this way, tapping into carbon. This would be very beneficial for the whole planet, when the living systems on farms accelerate the carbon process by sequestering it into the plants. This would get the carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil.”

Very few farms do carbon farming in America, although the potential is there. The United States hasn’t put together economic or policy initiatives that would incentivize the method. Russell encourages the government to to make carbon farming profitable for farmers.

“There are farmers worldwide who are experimenting and innovating, and they will soon be ahead of us,” he says. “And that would be a missed opportunity.”

till, Russell looks to the future of farming and the planet with optimism.

“We are in this great transformation,” he says. “During the fossil fuels era, we forced nature to do certain things, and we achieved a lot. But that development has taken another direction, and now the time is over. We have to make a shift and use the abundance and creation and nature as an energy source — like solar and wind and other renewable energy sources. This way, we will continue to increase the value and quality of human life.”

— Kirsi-M. Hayrinen-Beschloss