A Missouri farmer’s fight for a greener future

By Coco McCabe
Richard Oswald on his farm in Langdon, Missouri. Photo: Ilene Perlman/Oxfam America

If we don’t take steps to tackle climate change, says Richard Oswald, family farmers in the US and beyond could be at risk.

Richard Oswald remembers when he was a boy growing up in Langdon, Missouri, how regular the rain used to be. It seemed to fall just about every Saturday night, washing the corn fields his parents farmed near the Missouri River.

But in May 2011, those fields and many others across Langdon took a terrible beating when the river flooded, swollen by record snowfall in the Rockies and unprecedented rainfall in Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas. The river scoured craters in the fertile land and blanketed it with sand. For five long months, Oswald’s farm was under water.

“It was October when I could finally drive a pickup down the road and come home,” said Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer, who still lives in the house where he was born and blames climate change, in part, for the 2011 calamity. The flooding in the Missouri and Souris river basins caused more than $2 billion in damages in a year in which Missouri alone had three declarations of major disasters. The devastation on that river bottomland, where harvests of soybeans and corn flow into global food supply chains, contributed to record high prices of grains that year.

 “There was nothing to harvest,” said Oswald, whose corn is processed into corn starch and sold on the commercial market, where it is likely to wind up as thickener in any number of products made by major food and beverage companies. “We spent all the money for inputs—seed, fertilizer, herbicides—and got nothing in return.”

The shrinking grain belt

Across the US grain belt, farmers are fretting about the weather and the changes they are seeing in its patterns, changes that leave some of them fearful about the future of agricultural production and how they can make a living in the face of so much uncertainty. In Oswald’s lifetime, the regular rains have given way to spells of dryness punctuated by drenches of four to five inches at a time that damage his corn and soybeans in the standing water left behind. Sudden powerful bursts of wind up to 90 miles an hour slam into his farm several times a summer now, knocking over his irrigation systems and ripping at his buildings.

“I don’t remember anything like that as a kid,” said Oswald. “It’s difficult to plan for that kind of weather.”

And that variability is part of what’s driving farmers away. In 1950, when Oswald was born, there were 13 houses on his road and each one had a farmer or hired farm workers living in it. Today, only seven houses remain and of the four that still have people living in them, Oswald is the only one left who’s farming.

“The economic impact of the variability contributes to fewer people able to make a living on the land,” said Oswald. As families leave, their farms get consolidated into the hands of fewer people—and sometimes controlled by those who are not even part of the community at all.

Smarter farming

There are steps that companies, governments, farmers—and everyone else—can take to slow down climate change. For instance, on the 2,200 acres he now farms with his son, Oswald practices no-till, a method of planting that keeps the soil mostly intact. Left on top, the residue from the previous harvest decomposes slowly, shading the soil, keeping it cooler, and slowing erosion. Plus, farmers save on a lot of fuel—and the atmosphere benefits—when tractors aren’t grinding back and forth across the fields, turning heavy clumps of earth.

“I’ve done it for a good 20 years. The machinery’s gotten better now,” said Oswald, who has long been interested in alternatives. For instance, with the help of a rebate from his local power company, he recently installed a series of solar panels to provide his home with electricity.

“As an individual I have to look and see what I can do,” said Oswald. “If you can get everyone in the world to think about what we could do to make it better, then we could do a lot.”

Good for the earth, good for people

Oxfam is campaigning to urge companies to be leaders in advocating for broader action and in promoting ways to cut emissions from their own supply chains. For instance, big brands should set stricter standards and create incentives for their suppliers to measure and reduce the carbon footprint of the crops and livestock they produce. Taking a cue from their customers, companies can help farmers to use less fertilizer, sequester carbon in the soil through no-till methods like those Oswald follows, and capture methane from animal waste to use as energy for other farm activities.

“Huge opportunities await corporations able to position themselves for enlightened and concerned consumers,” said Oswald. “Anything that is ultimately good for the earth is good for people.”

Ultimately with or without stronger efforts to cut emissions and slow climate change, increasingly extreme conditions will continue to affect global food production.  Farmers in the US and around the world—and those who depend on their harvests-- have no choice but to get ready for that reality.

“We’re all going to have to learn to adapt to the climate the way it is now and if it continues that way we’re just going to have to roll with the punches,” said Oswald. “As a farmer, I’ve dealt with all kinds of adversity all my life.”

Climate change could be the single biggest threat to winning the fight against hunger. Yet some food companies are actually making the problem worse. Use your power as a consumer and tell General Mills and Kellogg to help stop climate change from making people hungry. 

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