Climate change is hurting Illinois farmers, and they need our help

Farmers can shift agricultural practices to cope with increasingly wet weather, but we need stronger policies to address climate change.

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Jim Angel is a member of The Nature Conservancy’s Science Advisory Committee. | Provided photo

In my 34 years working in Illinois and 20 years as Illinois state climatologist, I saw a lot — from the Great Flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in 1993 and 2013 to the crippling droughts of 1988 and 2012.

But I never saw a growing season quite like this one.

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Summer is upon us, and yet a significant amount of Illinois farmland is underwater or remains unplanted. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as of June 9, Illinois farmers had planted only 73 percent of corn and 49 percent of soybean crops.

On average, by now all the corn would have been planted, as well as 91 percent of the soybeans. The reason for the delay is the seemingly unending rain that have made this the wettest January-to-May in state history.

The window for corn planting is closing fast. Farmers are now faced with difficult decisions: Do they gamble on this week’s few dry days and a chance at a corn harvest this fall? Do they make the complicated and expensive switch to soybeans? Or do those farmers who have crop insurance take it?

With uncertainty in the air, more rain in the forecast, and an already changing climate that is expected to produce wetter winters and springs in the coming years, the heavy burden we are placing on those who produce our food may seem insurmountable.

But from my own experience — my grandparents farmed in Western Illinois and I’ve worked with many farmers throughout my career — I know that farmers, like nature, are resilient. There are changes that can help mitigate the impacts we are seeing, but the key is to act now.

The good news is that farmers are already drawing on tools and techniques we need to be resilient in the future. Drive through our state’s agricultural lands, and you may see restored habitat thriving along the edge of farm fields in the summer and cover crops keeping soil in place during winter.

Illinois farmers are using these sustainable practices, along with others such as buffer strips and constructed wetlands, to stop runoff and improve soil health. Healthier soil is less likely to erode and flood and produces higher yields. It also does a better job of storing carbon — and the more carbon our soil removes from the air, the more we can mitigate the extreme weather that’s predicted for the future.

These benefits add up fast: A study by The Nature Conservancy estimates that for each 1 percent of cropland with an adaptive soil health system, annual economic benefits translate into $226 million of societal value through increased water capacity, reduced erosion and nutrient loss, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, as well as $37 million of on-farm value through greater productivity.

But shifting agricultural practices to adjust to the realities of a changing climate will not be enough to avoid the increasing risk of flooding in the future. What we need is stronger policies that address climate change and curb rising emissions — and we can’t wait.

Just like the window on this planting season is closing, so too is the window to address a changing climate that threatens farmers, their bottom lines, and the millions who depend on their harvests.

If we act now, we can protect the future of our lands and waters — and the farmers who steward them to feed the world.

Jim Angel is a member of The Nature Conservancy’s Science Advisory Committee.

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