Colorful Swiss chard and crinkley silver kale look almost ready to harvest at Happy Hollow Farm in Jamestown, Missouri. But a few yards away, there are rows of metal arches covered by sheets of plastic that protect flowers, plump yellow peppers, eggplants and more from the elements. Just 10 years ago, this protective infrastructure wouldn’t have been necessary.
Liz Graznak has owned the certified organic farm with her wife for 11 years and has been in agriculture for most of her career. Throughout the Missouri native’s life, she has observed significant changes in weather patterns in the area.
According to a study of climatic changes in Missouri, more above average precipitation levels, rising minimum temperatures and cooling maximum temperatures in summer and autumn, as well as warming trends in winter and spring have persisted in the state over the past few decades. Furthermore, extended wet and dry periods can switch abruptly, and there have been increasing instances of extreme weather transitions occuring within short time periods.
This is climate change in the Midwest. Graznak and other small farmers are observing this reality unfold, and their crops might be in danger because of it.
"Overall, the biggest and most significant change is that the things that happen," Graznak says, "whether it's a rainstorm, whether it’s a snowstorm ... It’s more impactful. It’s more significant."
Jim Thies, owner and operater of Boonville, Missouri, vegetable farm The Veggie Patch, echoes Graznak's assessment of recent weather escalations.
"It does seem like the seasons are wetter or colder or warmer," Thies says. "There’s just more extremes. The number of days that are above 90 (degrees), the amount of rainfall you get in a period of time."
Climate change's impact on smaller operations that produce horticultural products differs significantly from those on large-scale corn and soybean growers. According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2018 National Climate Assessment, 75% of the Midwest’s arable land is used for corn and soybean production. Wetter springs and early summers are forcing farmers to adjust their agricultural practices.
MU professor and environmental economist Ray Massey says weather changes in the Midwest are prompting corn and soy growers to adjust the varieties of seeds they’re planting, making them rely more on genetically modified crops to withstand the harsher climate.
"Some of the farmers have started to look at irrigation as a way of offsetting dry summers, but that’s not very available here in Missouri," Massey says. "So most people are saying, 'Alright, I’m going to plant drought-resistant corn,' which they may not have planted 20 years ago."
Increasing reliance on GMOs helps farmers adapt to climatic changes, but investing in this new technology isn't always accessible or easy.
Fruit and vegetable producers are having to find other ways to protect their crops. For many, this means planting under high hoops or low tunnels, which cover their beds and protect the crops from extreme weather.
"There’s a huge cost in putting up these structures and maintaining them," Graznak says. "It’s much more labor-intensive than if I were to just use a tractor and plant and cultivate."
Thies explains that more precautionary measures are becoming necessary to ensure high-quality crops. But these preemptive actions come at a high cost that has led to his produce becoming more expensive. "It’s a high investment, input cost and time compared to the way we did things 25 years ago," Thies says.
Clay Stem, who has owned Stem to Table Farm with his family since 2017, grows microgreens in a 7-by-12 foot sunroom. He says his greens have done well thanks to the control afforded by growing indoors.
"We can control temperature and humidity much better than somebody that has crops outside," Stem says. Maintaining a stable growing environment is vital to producing a healthy vegetable crop.
Covering costly vegetable beds is an added investment for small farmers, but it also allows them to be more flexible in how they adapt to climate change compared to corn and soy growers. Massey says large scale production has more funding and science available for the fight against climate change, but small-scale growers have more options of what to plant and where to grow.
Although the methods to adapt to climate change differ from small vegetable growers to corn or soy producers, both types of agriculture are finding their own solutions. Massey says that this is what farmers have always done.