The world is facing a climate crisis and the changes this brings is dramatically impacting farmers across the world. As temperatures rise and rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable, production is dropping and businesses are struggling. However, in the United States, climate change still divides opinion. Many still question its scientific validity, including the President who said climate change was ‘an expensive hoax’ and pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement. However, in opposition to those climate-deniers, there are passionate and engaged people across America who are desperately working to keep us within the two-degree Celsius limit. In light of that division, we wanted to talk to farmers across the US to understand how they view climate change and what steps (if any) they were taking to address it.
The SFT will run this series over the coming months, featuring a diverse range of American farmers. This week we interviewed Anna Jones-Crabtree, who owns and runs Vilicus Farms with her husband, Doug Crabtree.
Vilicus Farms is a nationally recognised first generation, organic, dryland crop farm in Northern Hill County, Montana on 9,600 acres, growing a diverse array of organic heirloom and specialty crops. Its cropping practices focus on soil-building and carbon sequestration, pollinator-friendly conservation tactics and minimum disturbance tillage practices. With a five to seven-year crop rotation, 26% of managed land in permanent pollinator-friendly conservation and over 20 unique crops grown annually, Vilicus Farms strives to promote diversity and resilience across its landscape. Anna and Doug are committed to championing organic agricultural land stewardship on a scale that matters, as well as developing a community of like-minded farmers who share their vision. Vilicus Farms launched a beginning organic farmer apprenticeship programme in 2013 to support the establishment of new farmers on the Northern Great Plains.
What are your biggest concerns about climate change and its effect on your farm in particular?
We’ve seen significant weather variability – we farm in a place that is dryland, typically 11 to 14 inches of moisture a year and variability has always been part of our world. But more recently, it’s variability on when that moisture comes, the timing, the intensity of the events – that has all been a really significant change for us. We had snow during harvest last year – it never snows in September when you are in grain harvest. And there was lots of drought in the middle of the season. Last year was our third year in row where production was super challenging. Every one of those years, you can’t just say, oh it was drought, because the moisture patterns were not reflective of past history. It was all really different. Spring was long and cool last year, and then it was dry. 2017 was completely dry, no moisture really. That’s what we’ve been seeing mostly – high variability and we’ve had drought three years in row, at the time when we really needed water to show up for the crops.
For us, this will be our 12th year farming. We’re a first-generation organic farm and started our farm in 2009. We have been able to expand because of our practices, the organic market and land access in our very rural location has not been a challenge. But production issues have really been front and centre for us most recently due to weather variability as a result of climate change.
What climate issues have you encountered in your region? Have you had any particularly severe weather events that are climate change related?
It’s kind of a trick – what is weather versus climate? There are ongoing challenges, like snow last September and then another giant snow storm in October, so the grain that we did have, coming off the lack of moisture in the growing season, had very impacted quality. In February 2018, we had about 6 weeks when it didn’t get above 20 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. This year, right now, it is the beginning of March and it’s already 40 some degrees [Fahrenheit] and we have tremendous 40 mile an hour winds. There’s no consistency. We’re in a place that has always had a tradition of being fairly variable and with more challenging growing conditions. But it’s been really significantly variable, more so than normal. All of the ‘old-timer’ farmers around us are talking about how different it is. It’s unseasonable snow and drought all in the same year – it’s more about the moisture cycle for us because of our dryland environment. What I understand about climate change is that it’s impacting the moisture cycles on the planet. Where you could potentially count on some sort of moisture during the growing season in our ecosystem, when plants are getting started after seeding, you can’t count on that. In 2019, we had really excellent seeding conditions. May is usually when we do our seeding and it’s super busy and intense. We seeded 20 different things last year, so our farm looks really different from the air than our neighbours because of our diversity. You get stuff in the ground and the lentils come up but if the lentils don’t have moisture in June and July, when they’re trying to make little lentils in their pods, that’s really tough – you get to August when it’s time to harvest and there are no lentils.
How do you plan in these conditions?
One of our strategies is to double down on diversity. We don’t grow one thing, we grow lots of things – we have a seven-year crop rotation which has some perennials in it to help manage some of our perennial weed population. We’re also launching a livestock enterprise. We have a young gentleman we’ve been working with, who didn’t grow up on a farm, but has apprenticed and is very interested in having a life in agriculture. So, we’re helping him launch this livestock enterprise which will be mutually beneficial because the grazing enterprise can eat down our cover crops and use some of the rangeland that we’re managing but not cropping. We’re hoping we can continue to create some symbiotic positive feedback cycles on our operation by doing things like that, but if it only rains two inches a year, that’s not enough to grow very much. We’re trying not to worry, and hope that’s the sign of trends to come.
What have you done to prepare for more aggressive changes in weather and climate as global warming continues to intensify and what have you done as a business or individually to prepare?
We’ve really been thinking about our cropping system and making sure that it stays diverse. We’ve structurally laid our farm out differently; we’re not big block farming because we have lighter soils and a windy environment. We’re farming in strips and between every one of the crop strips, we’ve been seeding perennial native pollinator habitat – that breaks the wind, because we get quite a bit of wind up here and that helps with snow catch in the winter and with potential soil erosion.
We’re in the plains which is a grass-based ecosystem, so if we can introduce the grazing component back in, our hope is that will create a more holistic system for growing food. Also, in terms of business activity, we’ve been working with a Montana organic producers cooperative that has been mainly focused on selling beef, but that cooperative is expanding to include grains and other organic crops. We’re hoping through our engagement with that [cooperative], we can create better contracts that share risk with companies up the supply chain.
Is climate change the biggest threat to your financial viability or are other economic issues a greater concern?
I tend to think of myself as a systems thinker, so it’s all connected. Climate change and the weather variability that we’re seeing is an issue for us; but we also don’t have a system around farming that really supports good farming practices. And if we’d had that system of support, we might not be in the same situation with climate change that we’re in. I don’t think we can look at it as a check list. I honestly think that we’re looking for some radical change – we’re going to have to have collective action on this. Stop using fossil fuels and get more carbon back into soils. We put up solar panels in our headquarters here, we’re generating 60 – 70% of our energy, and we’re looking to do that for other sites on the farm. Our biggest Achille’s heel is our fossil fuel use because we’re trying to do this at a scale where we can actually have greater soil building. We’re managing 9,600 acres this year, and that requires that we do have some equipment. We’d love to find some companies that are making heavy duty electric vehicles like tractors and grain trucks and then work with them to pilot what fossil-free farming could look like at scale.
One of the things that’s impacting us more recently is that the organic market has started to become more commodified. We used to have relationships with our buyers. There was a premium [on organic] – that’s partly why we started as organic, we believed that was a way to be financially viable as a first-generation farm. What we’re finding is that even though organic is a very different production system, the scaling that is happening in the processing, buying, food part of organic is just replicating the existing conventional system that we were all trying to get away from – and that’s a problem economically for us, because the price premium isn’t there and we feel like we’re becoming more of a transaction and not a relationship.
What do you think needs to be done to help mitigate climate change and how do you see farming playing a positive role in this?
Farming and ranching can play a really significant role – not necessarily in the way that people talk about it in agriculture which is how, if we took care of our soils, they could be a carbon sink, which is a very positive part of the change needed. Collectively, we all need to cling to that. But here in the United States, there’s less than 1% of us in the population that are making any sort of living from agriculture. We have an apprentice programme – I think the other role that agriculture can play is in how we bring more people back to working more closely with natural systems and farming and understanding the cycles of nature. We’ve really disconnected ourselves and agriculture can play a huge role in making our relationship with the planet better.
Definitely, this next generation really cares about climate and what kind of planet they’re going to have to exist on. They all want real meaningful work and don’t just want to be at a computer all day, so being able to have that mix of strategic big picture thinking about your cropping system or your grazing system and also being able to just go out and do it. We need more people actually engaged in the work of agriculture, the ‘on the ground’ work of farming and ranching. If we had more people that would help us advocate for better policies and it helps us have a better societal understanding of our direct connection with the planet.
What is your major priority for future US farm policy?
There’s just so much. One of the issues that we have spent a lot of time on is the crop insurance system. That system, as it currently exists, is a disincentive for farming systems to become more diverse. The way it works right now is that you insure on a crop by crop basis – you can insure your wheat or your corn or soy at 80% revenue. But for a farm like ours that has a seven-year rotation and is growing 15-20 crops a year, that becomes a very complex equation. Crop insurance is definitely a factor that leads many to stay in the monoculture system. There are other disincentives to change as well. Until recently, if you were organic your crop insurance was more expensive for less coverage. We’ve been using another policy called ‘Whole Farm Revenue’ which allows you to have a diverse range of crops of which you can insure a percentage of your revenue and not let the crop insurance dictate what you grow. Unfortunately, we’ve seen significantly increasing documentation requirements with whole farm revenue that don’t exist for the individual crop policies. That’s just crazy because whole farm revenue was supposed to support farms that have more complex systems.
Additionally, we are learning about other consequences of choosing whole farm revenue insurance. Because we’ve had three challenging years in a row, we’ve had to utilise our crop insurance and that income can’t be counted as income. So, then you get into this negative economic spiral around how much is your farm actually making, and you can’t insure as much revenue. So, it’s very disincentivising for people trying to grow a range of crops.
Our other priorities for US farm policy are to incentivise ways to bring many more of the next generation into agriculture, and continue to level the playing field for those of us who are using more diverse, complex, conservation-based farming systems.
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