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New Climate Resiliency Program Aims to Assist in ‘Challenges Our Farm Hasn’t Faced Before’

By Jack Falinski

During her testimony to the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture and Rural Development and Natural Resources, Jeanie Igl, a fourth-generation farmer based in Ingham County, detailed how climate change has impacted her family’s farm.

“It’s not my dad’s farm anymore,” she said during the testimony. “It’s a new farm. We’re facing challenges our farm hasn’t faced before.”

On March 12, 2024, Igl joined MSU AgBioResearch director George SmithMSU Extension director Quentin Tyler and other Michigan farmers to testify on how the newly announced Agricultural Climate Resiliency Program can address climate issues farmers are facing and prepare plant industries for the future.

The program stems from a partnership among the Michigan Plant Coalition, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), and Michigan State University. With an MDARD budget of $1 million in recurring funds to support MSU faculty and Extension positions, and a one-time investment of $5 million to kickstart a competitive grants program, the initiative will bolster climate change research in areas such as soil health, water quality, water use efficiency, pest management and economic impact on Michigan farms.

Hawkins Homestead, which has been in Igl’s family since 1862, started as a dairy farm. After Igl’s father learned he was allergic to cattle in 1979, the farm switched from producing dairy to growing corn, wheat and soybeans. Since 2012, it’s grown just corn and soybeans.

Igl said she’s in the process of adding a new generation to the farm by transitioning it over to her daughter and son-in-law. Their family has found ways to make the farm more sustainable heading into the future, such as not tilling the soil to limit erosion and using innovative technology to care for the fields accurately and precisely. Nevertheless, Igl said she still communicates the importance of staying up to date on how the climate impacts the farm.

“We keep telling them, ‘Learn, learn, learn,’” Igl said. “Read the magazines. Listen to the podcasts. They haven’t seen the history I have — how different the farm is from when I was a kid in the ‘60s and ‘70s to what it is now. I relay that to them so that they’re prepared and know the climate has been changing and will continue to change.”  

Tyler said the role MSU Extension serves in providing accurate and timely information farmers can use to make knowledgeable decisions on their farms will remain a priority within the Agricultural Climate Resiliency Program.

“This program will advance the critical research needed in areas MSU Extension educators assist with daily,” Tyler said. “Sharing the results that come from these studies as applicable resources is paramount to addressing the emerging concerns Michigan farmers and industry leaders have expressed around shielding crops from shifting climate patterns.”

Of the concerns Igl said she’s encountered on her farm, fungal pathogens causing plant diseases like tar spot in corn and white mold in soybeans have posed a serious risk to crop yield in recent years. Both diseases typically favor mild temperatures and humid and wet conditions.

She’s also seen high levels of vomitoxin, a toxin brought upon by fungal pathogens that can lead to fusarium ear rot in corn. When the corn carries too much vomitoxin, Igl said the farm can’t sell it to ethanol plants, which then turn it into grain for distillers to feed animals, because it’s unsafe for the animals to eat.

Igl said she attributes these problems to the rising temperatures and inconsistent weather patterns Michigan has experienced.

“Back when I was growing up in the ‘70s, we had snowmobiles and would go snowmobiling in the winter, and we’d have snow cover for the wheat,” Igl said. “It just seemed like it wasn’t as complicated, but now we don’t get the snowfall like we used to. We’re seeing these issues come up that we haven’t had a severe problem with before, and they’ve come up from the South as we’ve gotten warmer.”

In addition to the fungal pathogens impacting the farm, Igl said the warm winters have allowed wildlife to graze the fields, disrupting production for the upcoming season.

“That’s the other problem with climate change — it isn’t limiting the animals like it used to,” Igl said. “It used to be that you’d get a hard winter and would lose some of the deer because they couldn’t find food. We had a couple soybean fields last year that we didn’t even put the combine in because the deer had just decimated them.”

MSU AgBioResearch scientists have worked to better understand and discover solutions for some of the novel challenges Igl and others are facing on their farms. For example, Addie Thompson, assistant professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, has studied — and continues studying — the selection of tar spot resistance in corn, identifying phenolic compounds that are essential to a plant’s defense and accumulate within corn when tar spot is detected.

However, the work isn’t done. As obstacles proceed to pop up due to climate change, Igl said the Agricultural Climate Resiliency Program will be critical for ensuring farmers have resources and experts available to them to protect their crops.

“If they have several years of research on this, that gives us a better idea what’s going to work for our farm,” Igl said. “A one-year trial doesn’t tell you enough because the weather one year is now so different from every other year. Look at 2019 and then 2023 — those years are so different.”

Source : msu.edu

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