Down on the farm

“For misery does not come from the earth, nor does trouble sprout from the ground: but human beings are born to trouble as sparks fly upward.”

-Job 5: 6-7

As the crow — or storm clouds — fly, Rushford, Minnesota is only about 25 miles west of La Crosse. Jack Hedin and his family raise grain, vegetables and hay in Rushford, not too far from where his great grandfather homesteaded in the late 1800s.

Last Saturday, Hedin’s essay, “An Almanac of Extreme Weather,” appeared on the opinion page of the New York Times. I recommend it to you.

Hedin’s piece reads something like a chapter out of the book of Job. One climate-related disaster after another has befallen his small family farm. His story is not unique; many farmers throughout the Upper Midwest are struggling to cope with losses they’ve suffered as a result of increasingly erratic weather in recent years.

Unlike Job, Hedin isn’t sitting around cursing God for his plight. He’s taking responsibility for his complicity (his word) in the climate chaos unfolding across the Midwest — and the world. Like most American farmers, Hedin uses thousands of gallons of diesel fuel every year. He says he’s working to reduce his own emissions of greenhouse gases, but he’s also trying to rouse his fellow citizens, country folk and city folk alike, to get serious about pressing for strong climate-change legislation.

Hedin’s story is easily overlooked amid all the news in recent days about record-breaking corn harvests in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states this year. Bountiful harvests, high prices and fair weather all come and go (most farmers will tell you they go more often than they come), but the long-term trends are what smart growers pay the most attention to if they want to remain in business.

Hedin writes in his piece that Minnesota’s state climatologist has concluded that no fewer than three “thousand-year rains” have occurred in the past seven years in the part of Minnesota where Hedin and his family live. Those statistics are mirrored in Wisconsin and in many parts of the heartland. Even Hedin’s great grandfather, who lived

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

through the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, would be shocked by the freakish weather his great grandson’s family has had to contend with.

Hedin is not only advocating for farmers like himself, but for everyone. We all eat the food Hedin and other farmers grow. And we all pay taxes. Hedin and thousands of farmers like him were able to keep farming after severe storms swept away their crops in 2007, 2008 and 2010 thanks in large part to the government grants and subsidized loans they received after the feds declared the counties their farms are located in disaster areas.

As I see it, the choice we face is this: pay a modest amount today to mitigate climate change or pay a fortune later to clean up the mess, bail out our farmers and try to find ways to grow food in an increasingly volatile climate. Hedin puts it this way:

“No new field drainage scheme will help us as atmospheric carbon concentrations edge up to 400 parts per million; hardware and technology alone can’t solve problems of this magnitude.”

It’s up to all of us, not just farmers, to cultivate climate solutions, as well as a realization in the minds of our political leaders at all levels that it’s in our nation’s financial as well as security interest to take strong action to slash emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to a small fraction of the current level.

Addressing our national debt is important, but it will be the least of our problems if we can’t maintain a sufficient and consistent supply of food. Investment in clean energy can save us trillions in the long term, and be a powerful engine for more robust and sustainable economic activity.

Job was a stubborn man, but even he came around in the end — and found himself blessed.