Agriculture is critical to Nebraska’s future, but Gov. Dave Heineman said the ongoing drought presents a challenge to the future of the state’s largest industry, which represents about 45 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
From massive flooding along the Missouri River in 2011 to a massive drought that has engulfed all of Nebraska this year, Heineman told members of the Nebraska Farmers Union Friday that the weather has made a 180-degree turn from one extreme to another.
And the main concern is now “what is going to happen next year and the year after that,” he said.
Heineman spoke to members of the Nebraska Farmers Union at their annual state convention in Grand Island. He made a number of remarks in his address about the severity of the drought. Climate was also a topic of discussion as the convention featured several speakers who addressed climate change and the long-term impact it will have on Nebraska and its agricultural industry.
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Heineman said Nebraska is the nation’s most irrigated state for crop production and that has helped the state manage the drought. But the lack of rain has depleted soil moisture to nearly zero through most of the state, raising concerns about next year’s grass and crop production.
“What I really worry about is what is going to happen next year,” he said. “I think there is going to be a great deal of tension if we don’t get enough moisture, between agriculture users of water resources, businesses and cities.”
One tool that allows Nebraska to better manage its water resources is the state’s Natural Resources Districts, which monitor and manage water resources and have plans and authority to restrict irrigation if groundwater levels continue to decline.
But Heineman said he hopes “we begin to see the moisture we desperately need to see.”
Another concern is the impact on the state’s agricultural industry and economy if the drought continues into next year. The economy has benefited over the last five years from good moisture availability and high commodity prices, allowing the economy to expand and keep unemployment well below the national average.
Heineman said he doesn’t expect any legislative action about water usage during the state legislative session that starts in January.
“But what we are concerned about, if we go through a second or third year of the drought, is its impact on agriculture,” he said. “Looking down the road, an extended drought will definitely have an impact on our state and it will be a difficult situation.”
Speaking on the topic of climate change and rural America was Chris Clayton, an agricultural reporter for DTN.
Clayton, who has been covering agriculture and climate change for DTN for five years, has reported on both support and rejection of climate change.
“Over time, I have been greatly concerned on the issue of climate denial,” he said. “When you have 97 percent or 98 percent of the scientists saying that this is an issue that the world should be focusing on and that agriculture should be focusing on, but we have a denialist attitude in the industry, that is a great concern.”
Clayton said when looking at drought, flooding and long-term effects of climate, “nobody is more effective that agriculture.”
“Nobody is more effective than our ability to produce food,” he said. “This is a problem on many aspects. When you look at other issues, such as renewable energy, right now you have the American Petroleum Institute saying it is going to go after the Renewable Fuel Standard to completely eliminate it. And you have groups out there right now who have been hired to go out there and eliminate renewable electricity around the country.”
Clayton, who lives in Iowa, said that state has about 18 percent of its electrical energy generated by wind power.
“All of this renewable energy that you see around the country also comes from middle America,” he said. “You don’t see solar farms being built in big cities. You don’t see windmill farms being built in big cities. It all comes from rural America.”
And, Clayton said, “rural America benefits from renewable energy.”
Agriculture can also be a big tool to combat the impact of greenhouse gases on the atmosphere.
“In the United States, agriculture only counts for about 6 percent of the emissions,” Clayton said. “But we can, though, in agriculture account for 20 percent to 25 percent of the reductions of the emissions if we have a solution. But we are not moving in that direction. Like the fiscal cliff, we are stagnated, and we are going to remain that way for a while.”
Also speaking on the topic of changing weather and climate was John Pollack, a retired meteorologist for the National Weather Service.
Pollack, who is a member of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union, said climate change will have a great impact on Nebraska agriculture if the current trends continue.
“I am expecting that the Corn Belt will not be in Nebraska in 50 years,” Pollack said. “That is because we will have enough global warming that it is going to push the area that is favorable for corn farther north because it is going to be too susceptible to early season heat and drought to allow the growing of corn and quite possibly soybeans.”
The weather extremes that Nebraska has seen during the last two years are going to be more and more common, along with the intensity of those extremes, Pollack said.
“We will probably come out of this drought and go into a favorable period, though I can’t say when, but I don’t think it is going to last,” he said. “I think we are operating on borrowed time, and at some point we are going to have to adapt to the idea that we can’t do corn in this state anymore. But that will be a while.”
Unfortunately, Pollack said, it is anybody’s guess when Nebraska will get some relief weather-wise from the drought.
“We had this in the ’30s and we came out of it,” he said. “The ’50s and the ’70s were bad, but they were not that bad. I do think we will still probably come out of this one at some point, but I don’t think it will last as long. But it is something we are going to have to get used to and will see more of.”
The Great Plains, Pollack said, has always been an area of weather extremes, but the climate risk has increased.
“That is the bottom line and it is going to keep going up,” he said.
With Nebraskans debating the path of an oil pipeline from Canada through the state and the U.S. Energy Information Administration reporting that domestic crude oil production will rise sharply during the next decade, CO2 admission could continue to get worse and impact weather patterns that are already hard to predict.
Pollack said the more carbon the world burns, the more destabilized the climate system is, and the more uncertain the nature, timing and severity of the change.
His recommendation is to “leave carbon in the ground.”
“As far as food production, we are going to have to get used to dryland and find the strategies that work with dryland farming,” he said. “And, with the water resources we will have left, we are going to have to be very careful about them.”
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