Jerry Hatfield

RENVILLE, Minn. — Listening to Dr. Jerry Hatfield is a delightful challenge because he stretches your mind into serious thinking about the future of our agricultural landscape — both in the United States and around the world.

Hatfield is a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture plant scientist and former director of the National Soil Tilth Laboratory (renamed the Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment in October 2009).  He spoke at the Reduced Tillage and Cover Crop event on Feb. 18. The gathering was hosted by the Renville County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Hawk Creek Watershed Project people.

In view of the changing weather scenario, Hatfield said, “Water management is going to be our number-one issue in preserving agriculture across the Midwest.”

Will our globe be producing enough food 20 years from now to feed its people?  Hatfield commented that weather extremes are increasing in frequency with more spring rains happening and fewer summer rains when crops are most in need of water.

“On a world-wide basis, we really have a limited supply of food right now. In 20 years we’ll have a shrinking land base to grow these crops, which means more productivity per unit of land will be needed. Yet we continue to degrade our land (world wide) making it more susceptible to weather disturbances. So skew these variations of temperature and precipitation over a world land base becoming more vulnerable to weather variations and food production will vary more dramatically,” acknowledged Hatfield.

He reminded his Renville audience that more capacity for water stress is on the landscape, adding, “Climate determines where we grow a crop; weather determines how much we produce.” Yet our spring growing season is shortening. Hatfield noted that weather scientists of the upper Midwest are saying we now have five less ‘working days’ for getting crops planted in that six-week, mid-March/April 30 time frame.

As many crop farmers are noting, water management is rapidly becoming the ‘how-to’ issue for preserving the future of agriculture. In essence, this means changing farming strategies to accommodate the changing weather seasons. Hatfield says we have more eco-system impact other than just productivity from our soils.

“You look at water quality as part of the eco system. You look at pollinator habitat as part of the eco system. You look at the cultural aspects, such as hunting and fishing habitat, as part of the eco system. Recognize that many people value agricultural landscape from an entirely different perspective than we do … but that’s part of the eco system we all live in. And that does prompt different decisions,” said Hatfield.

This starts with every farmer establishing long-term goals for his/her farmland and then asking the big question:  How do you get there? “I think we need to ask farmers different questions,” Hatfield suggested.

And he’s not concerned whether you are growing corn, or soybeans, or lettuce or grapes, or any crop. All agriculture today is suffering from these problems of the growing intensity of crop production and the continual degradation of soil health.

“Farming is working a biological system; yet we think we can manipulate this system to respond exactly the way we would desire,” stated Hatfield. “But all farmers realize there are always bumps and wiggles that we don’t fully understand. Working in some of our environmental chambers, we’ve witnessed doubling of organic content in our soils in 6 to 8 years.  So we’re much aware that working with crop rotations, reduced tillage, and cover crops — even involving small grains — we can significantly improve soil health and biological activity.

“I’m aware you have very intensive farming in this area. Your SWCD folks are telling me more and more farmers are switching into this ‘farming for the future’ concept. I congratulate them — especially in view of the agricultural economic crunch of the past few years. A drier, warmer spring I’m certain would be welcomed by all. But farming to rebuild your soils is the thinking mode we should all be in — regardless of your weather outlook for this spring,” summed up Hatfield, adding “Ingenuity in agriculture that promotes diversity with a viable crop for the end user is our challenge.”

Will the corn and soybeans we grow today be significantly different 20 years from now to better fit this changing weather scenario?

Hatfield responded, “Today, no one knows the answer. Will both crops continue their movement into the western and northern geographies of the United States? Or will these variable weather patterns become such a risk factor that corn and soybeans become questionable crop choices? Perhaps winter crops will predominate because the variable heat and rainfall starts limiting spring crops.” 

Hatfield definitely predicts an increasing diversity of crop mix. “With the increasingly schizophrenic weather and climate, we’re looking at higher risk profiles.  And that likely will suggest a mixture of spring crops, summer crops, even winter crops to spread risks over a longer season.”

Hatfield added he’s not encouraged the U.S. farm bill can rectify what is happening to our landscape. “One would hope that increasing emphasis on conservation practices and crop diversity will continue. But our farm bills really promote monocultures. Yet we know the long-term values of our land resources are not enhanced that way. We really need to promote much more diversity into our rural landscape.”

 “Who’s to say the current trend of wetter and warmer cycles will continue indefinitely?  We’ve had both dry and wet cycles since man started to till the soils. We don’t quite understand these huge phenomena that we call ‘earth weather’ and its total impact on all the variable events within a given year. Even man’s impact is tempered by what these natural earth systems are doing.”