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How Climate Change Impacts Farmers: 'I Really Don't Know How We're Going To Cope'

Last year wasn't a good year for farmers. From small dairy farms struggling to survive across Wisconsin, to a trade war impacting the sales of big agricultural crops, to our local produce farms — it has been grim.

Farming contributor Dave Kozlowski, of Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek, says that while normally farmers like the challenge of adapting, this past season was a new low — and climate change has a large part to do with it.

"2019 was not a good year — for us, for just about every farmer I know. And you come to the end of a season like that and for the first time in 25 years I begin to question whether, ‘Do I really want to do this anymore?’ " says Kozlowski.

The Milwaukee area had just over 46 total inches of rain — nearly beating the record of 50 inches set in 1876. It was the third wettest season on record and had less than 50 fair days out of the entire year, according to Kozlowski. "It was wet in Wisconsin, but it was wet all over the Midwest and nationally, something like 20 million acres never got planted," he says.

The saturated ground meant no planting or delayed planting, which impacts the produce and farmer’s finances. Farm bankruptcies for the Midwest was up 13% in 2019 — yet we as consumers often expect the same produce to be available.

Kozlowski notes that a bad season impacts farmers emotionally and physically. He also notes that the diluted soil has an even bigger impact on runoff.

"Everybody is a little anxious about this coming season, befuddled and confused about what to do," says Kozlowski. "They're thinking that, as we are, that the old ways of doing things just aren't going to cut and so we have to change the way we're doing things."

Credit Dave Kozlowski
An intrepid crew pulling up rutabagas at "Lake Pinehold." Fields were often too saturated to drive a tractor in, resulting in muddy and time consuming labor.

Small changes are no longer enough for farmers or consumers, says Kozlowski. We need big systemic change.

He notes that some farmers are going to use massive tarps on their land to stop weed growth before crops get planted. Raised and permanent beds may become the new normal in a farming landscape, and farmers will be forced to plow in the fall, although Kozlowski says that's not good for the health of the soil.

He admits that after 26 years, he thought he had a system of farming, but climate change and unpredictable weather have created new obstacles.

"To be honest, I really don't know how we're going to cope with this," says Kozlowski. "There is going to be no 'new normal' because everything is going to be so erratic and crazy, which makes it even harder."

And while you may not notice price increases in your local grocery store yet, Kozlowski notes they're coming. Seasons will be delayed and prices will go up.

"[Consumers] will be impacted, even though they think it's not their concern — it is," he says.

Audrey Nowakowski is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.