Farmers nurture soil as a line of defense against drought, floods




Farmer Zack Koscielny has only been responsible for livestock and crops for four years, but he has already become accustomed to subsequent dry spells and then, this season, uncommon flooding. 

Unfettered, Mr. Koscielny has decided to reimagine his family’s fourth-generation farm. Mimicking native prairie, his fields look “messy” as he intercrops instead of planting the tidy single crop fields of wheat and canola of his childhood. He puts his pigs and chickens out on the pasture along with cattle. It’s all an effort to restore the soil health here to buffer against the wild swings in weather – and the pessimism that prevails when it comes to the climate.

Why We Wrote This

Parched, powdery soil does not absorb water quickly. So whether the challenge is drought or floods – and lately it’s been both of those – farmers are tying their own resilience to that of their soil.

His approach is part of a global movement known as “regenerative agriculture,” a sweeping term that entails the many ways farmers can restore and nourish ecosystems while also growing food. According to a growing body of research, it can help farmers adapt to extreme weather events while also fighting climate change by storing more carbon in the soil. 

“I think farmers have such an opportunity,” Mr. Koscielny says, “if they manage land properly and stop fighting Mother character.”

Strathclair, Manitoba

Zack Koscielny has only been responsible for livestock and crops for four years, but the freckled farmer has already become accustomed to subsequent dry spells, including one last year that put large swaths of the Canadian prairies in exceptional drought.

Then, this season, Manitoba was hit by a major spring blizzard and several Colorado lows that have caused flooding in the Red River Valley and brought unseasonably cold, damp weather that has delayed planting across the province. 

“The weather’s been crazy,” says Mr. Koscielny on a chilly spring day on the fields of Green Beach Farm in Strathclair, three hours northwest of Winnipeg.

Why We Wrote This

Parched, powdery soil does not absorb water quickly. So whether the challenge is drought or floods – and lately it’s been both of those – farmers are tying their own resilience to that of their soil.

The uncertainty would be enough to deter most starting out. But Mr. Koscielny instead has decided to reimagine his family’s fourth-generation farm into something different in the prairies. Mimicking native prairie, his fields look “messy” as he intercrops instead of planting the tidy single crop fields of wheat and canola of his childhood. He puts his pigs and chickens out on the pasture and arranges for calves to be born outdoors, later in the season and far from a barn. It’s all an effort to restore the soil health here to buffer against the wild swings in weather – and the pessimism that prevails when it comes to the climate.

“It seems like a continued challenge with the weather. But I have a hard time blaming Mother character for it. That’s her job. And it’s our job to deal with it,” he says, adjusting his baseball cap as he turns his two dozen yearlings to a new pasture to avoid overgrazing. “Instead of all this ‘woe is me’ stuff, I think farmers have such an opportunity if they manage land properly and stop fighting Mother character.” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Zack Koscielny and his sister, Emma-Jean, tag a newborn calf while its mother watches, on May 9, 2022, in Strathclair, Manitoba. Regenerative agriculture benefits the ecosystem while building resiliency in the system. Mr. Koscielny says he tries to work with Mother character.

Mr. Koscielny’s approach is part of a global movement known as “regenerative agriculture,” a sweeping term that entails the many ways farmers can restore and nourish ecosystems while also growing food. For years now, a small but increasing number of producers have been turning away from the traditional, linear supply chain approach to agriculture in favor of the way Mr. Koscielny is farming, using techniques such as rotational grazing, cover cropping, or already growing trees in pastureland. 

Supporters say this form of agriculture leads to both better products and healthier soils. It also, according to a growing body of research, helps farmers both fight climate change and adapt to the extreme weather events caused by it.

Big stakes for global climate

Although it’s tricky to calculate exact numbers, groups such as Project Drawdown calculate that agriculture and land use are responsible for about a quarter of the world’s greenhouse emissions. And in Canada and the United States, government agencies put the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions caused by agriculture alone at around 10% – a figure advocates say may be conservative. Regenerative practices, however, can turn agriculture into a climate solution, in part by storing more carbon in the soil. Project Drawdown, for example, estimated that regenerative agriculture could have a greater climate solution impact than either electric cars or geothermal heating.

But as important to Mr. Koscielny and his fellow farmers is how it can help protect against climate extremes. Thanks to everything from healthier bacteria and microbes within the soil ecosystem to deeper root systems, land tended by regenerative agriculture practices has the ability to keep up more water. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

A white calf and its mother. Calving season at the Koscielny farm is later than what’s typical on other farms – in the spring – so the calves are born outdoors instead of in a barn.

“People who are doing regenerative practices are experiencing much lower drought impacts because they have soils that are better at retaining moisture overall,” says Cathy Day, climate policy coordinator for the National Sustainable Agriculture Commission in Washington.

And that matters here.

The prairies, home to 80% of Canada’s farmland, have grappled with drought for centuries. But scientists predict already drier conditions – alongside the kind of flooding that has put farms under water in southern Manitoba this spring – as a new norm in prairie life. This year, a report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change zeroed in on the world’s agricultural systems, saying that global warming is already threatening food supplies around the world, and that extreme weather will be the new normal for farmers.

The risk to North American topsoil

For farms across the North American Wheat Belt, the drought-flood cycle is particularly damaging. Parched, powdery soil does not absorb water quickly, so the water from torrential rains tends to rush across the surface, carrying already more topsoil away. That’s what has happened in the American Midwest over recent years, where farmers accustomed to predictable rainfall patterns have suffered ruined fields and crops from both dry spells and extreme rains. 

Here in Manitoba, last year’s drought caused several municipalities to declare agricultural disaster in the prairies. Farmer Larry Wegner in Virden, Manitoba, says he had to plan for raising fewer cattle to have enough forage by the winter, and he expects to confront such decisions more frequently. “In the prairies we’re going to see milder weather, so more water running in wintertime, which is scarce for this part of the world. And we’re going to see drier summers. So we have to start thinking, how do I start planning ahead for that to make it better?”

Those questions will be centerstage at the Manitoba Forage & Grassland Association conference in November on regenerative agriculture – the fifth they’ll have held. The meeting will bring in experts to discuss ways to enhance soil health so that the ground holds more water in periods of heavy rainfall, and so there are reserves from wetlands in times of drought. 

The principles behind regenerative agriculture date back centuries, to the way native peoples grew food before industrial agriculture. But it can be hard for farmers to transform their methods, says Brenda Tjaden, founder of the Manitoba consultancy Sustainable Grain. Farmers’ fields might look “messier,” she says. There is currently no certification like a green label, since regenerative agricultural practices is a systems-based approach to land management so is harder to measure. “It doesn’t follow a particular regime,” she says. “Are there waterways close by? Are there any grasslands? Are there any trees in the vicinity?”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Zack Koscielny has lunch, which includes garden-fresh salsa and purple potato and squash soups, with his mom, Karen Gamey-Koscielny, and dad, Jason Koscielny, on May 9, 2022, in Strathclair, Manitoba.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of regenerative agriculture is that it is place specific, says Lara Bryant, deputy director for water and agriculture with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Working in harmony with a wet, southeastern U.S. ecosystem is far different from what a farmer would do in the dry Southwest, or the drought- and flood-battered Grain Belt. 

That’s one of the reasons why, in a report her organization released in April, Ms. Bryant recommended increased policy sustain for regenerative agriculture training and mentorship, in addition as increased financial sustain.

“We need to increase the sustain to farmers and ranchers at the beginning level,” she says. “And our policies need to not get in the way of regenerative agriculture.”

“Surprised how much progress we’ve made”

Mr. Koscielny grew up ecologically minded. His parents, who farmed part time, were long pushed by locally grown food – a lunch spread around their table included garden-fresh salsa and purple potato and squash soups. They’ve watched the farms grow around them and an industry demanding “bigger, bigger, bigger,” says his mother, Karen Gamey-Koscielny, whose family settled this farm in 1919. 

“But if you don’t have good soil, you’ve got nothing,” says her husband, Jason Koscielny. 

Their son Zack says that, when it came to choosing a career after earning a degree in agroecology at the University of Manitoba, he had no intention of going into monoculture-style grain production.

Instead he runs “five quarters,” or 800 acres, that has seen Timothy grass and a variety of vetches return. With big fractures forming on his hills last year, the rains this year are not replenished “by any stretch,” he says. “But we’re just surprised how much progress we’ve made. And already with the dry conditions we’ve additional animals every year of the drought.”

Regenerative agriculture, he says, is first off a functional measure to reduce inputs and increase margins. But it also digs deeper. “It’s rewarding to be doing a job that can really be making a big difference on such a huge issue that most people just say, ‘Well, I don’t know how we’ll ever address that,’” he says. “I think we’re front and center as far as having the ability to make change and make the difference.”

Stephanie Hanes contributed to this article from Northampton, Massachusetts.

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