Nebraska is one of the top 4 largest agricultural states in the USA. According to the Nebraska Agricultural Fact Card published by the Nebraska Department of Agriculture and USDA NASS in February 2020, Nebraska contributed 5.7% to the national agricultural value in 2018. The same report showed that Nebraska’s farming cash receipts were $21 billion the same year.

Agriculture makes up more than 25% of Nebraska’s economy, with more than 90% of the state being ranches and farms. The agricultural industry relies heavily on the logistics industry and the transport infrastructure to move produce to the relevant markets.

Agriculture in the Midwest is becoming an increasingly vulnerable industry because of the damaging effects of climate change.

The agricultural sector is now under threat following the current and predicted state of extreme weather in the region. In recent years, this Midwestern state has experienced warmer temperatures and heavier rainfall.

The area is also prone to flash floods and tornadoes. The bomb cyclone in March 2019 was especially severe. It left in its wake floods and damages amounting to more than $1 billion. The state’s infrastructure and its agricultural sectors were the worst hit.

Higher Temperatures in Nebraska

Like most of the country, summers in the Northern Rockies and Plains are warmer than in the past years. Available climate models predict this trend will continue into the near future as GHG emissions continue to rise. Source: Climate Central

Over the last century, Nebraska’s temperature has risen by 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit. This warmer temperature outpaces the rise of the minimum temperature by a factor of two.

Some sections of the state have experienced warmer summers and falls, as well as colder winters. These temperatures interfere with the duration of the seasons, either shortening or lengthening the growing season.

A warmer Nebraska means the crops and animals will require more water. When this is not done on demand, the crops and livestock may experience heat stress.  Some regions of the state, especially in the south, have recently recorded a drying trend. These changes ultimately reduce productivity. To compensate for that, these changes would also require agricultural practices to adapt.

Floods in Nebraska

2019 Nebraska Floods. 65 counties and 74 cities in Nebraska declared emergencies at the peak of the floods following a bomb cyclone. Photo Courtesy: Shelby L. Bell/Flickr

2019 was an especially tough year; 65 counties and 74 cities in the state declared emergencies at the peak of the floods following a bomb cyclone. This was after 1,500 miles of highways were closed.

Pete Ricketts, the Governor, described the disaster as the worst in the state’s history. Farmers experienced more than $440 million in crop losses and $400 million in cattle losses.

In addition to losses from damages, floods have been disrupting the planting calendar. Farmers take some time to let the floods subside. In the process, planting is delayed, creating a domino effect.

Given that insurance is only effective if planting is done by the set timelines, the situation often overwhelms the farmers who may not have the crop fully insured.  These factors have led to the state’s net farm income to drop by 60% in 2019.

Historic flooding in Nebraska in March 2019. The mix of rain and snow unleashed heavy flooding, destroying the Union Pacific bridges and rail lines.

Following massive losses from erratic weather conditions, there was a briefing on the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) held by EESI. The NFIP was established by Congress to give affordable flood insurance, as well as offer flood risk mitigation and management support.

Communities have taken up the insurance, with more than 5 million policies already in force. The program’s mandate is to ensure that the communities implement the measures developed for land use and construction. NFIP works closely with other federal disaster management programs as it is not designed for extreme emergencies.

The Proposed Solutions

Farmers are planting green rye, and other weather resilient crops, to hold the soil in place and lessen the impacts of floods. Photo Courtesy: Max Pixels

Among the obvious effects of flooding, once the water is gone, are the massive sand deposits left on the fertile farmlands. But as weather reports show, there will be more extreme weather episodes to come, so there is a need for practical long term solutions.

A new trend is taking shape where farmers are planting green rye, and other weather-resilient crops, to hold the soil in place and lessen the impacts of the floods. Such ideas are gradually being embraced in the rural Nebraska. Farmers want to maintain soil fertility by planting crops that hold the soil intact, even during floods.

In addition to the usual soybean and corn, farmers need root crops that help drain the excess water from the soil, while keeping the nutrients intact. The alternative crops that a growing number of farmers are opting for will improve drought resistance and the area’s flood resilience.

The state’s institutions, such as the University of Nebraska, have organized weather days for the community. These are days set aside to educate industry players on how  to best prepare for and manage the effects of extreme weather.

Dubbed ‘Weather Ready Nebraska’, the event focuses on several areas the community needs to work on. These areas include weather and climate literacy, scenario mapping, the sustainability of farming operations, as well as preparing farms for resilience. The university has created AgriTools, a mobile app designed to give users location-specific weather and climate data, maps, and forecasts related to agriculture in Nebraska.

Conclusion

Over the last few years, Nebraska has experienced heavier floods and higher temperatures than normal in the region.  These changes in climate have significantly affected the state’s farms’ output.  Reduced productivity is threatening to impact the nation’s food supply.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) gives a variety of management and mitigative measures to implement in case of extreme weather. This UN body advises farmers to reduce dependence on products like beef, which contributes heavily to greenhouse gas emissions, and ultimately, higher temperatures. The IPCC also advises farmers to use tools like manure digesters to convert waste and gases to fuel.

Farmers are preparing for the inevitable, even as the debate on climate change versus extreme weather becomes all the more heated by the day. Nebraska should prepare by finding alternative sources of freshwater, as floods contaminate water sources, threatening the viability and productivity of farming.

As industry players look for practical solutions to their issues, legislators are working on a climate adaptation plan. While Nebraska is yet to have one, farmers can make use of the resources available that the state has developed. These resources were designed to help the communities better prepare for and deal with the effects of climate change.

64% of Nebraska residents do recognize that climate change is happening, and it can easily ruin lives and livelihoods if there are no practical measures put in place to prepare. 70% of Nebraska residents think that carbon dioxide should be regulated as a pollutant.

An overwhelming 81% support funding to be channeled towards renewable energy sources research. At the very least, this shows the state residents’ willingness to become part of the solution.

Augurisk is a risk assessment platform for Climate Change, Natural Hazards and Societal Risks. We help people and businesses assess climate risks associated with their properties, so they can better prepare for the future.