How Can Iowa’s Agriculture Adapt To Climate Threats?

17:05 minutes

Two men standing in a sunny field
Patrick Schnable and his son, James, stand in a field of proso millet, a drought-resistant crop whose yield they are working to increase. Credit: Patrick Schnable
A family holding up a sign that says "Heritage Famrs"
The Western family (Todd Western III is second from the left). Credit: Todd Western III

Climate change is having a profound effect on agriculture. Farmers over the past decade have faced intensifying drought and heat stress on crops, leading many to wonder, what will agriculture look like 50 years from now?

In May, at SciFri Live at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Ira Flatow discussed the future of agriculture, and potential solutions to these problems, from innovative farming techniques, to ensuring that Iowa’s farmers of color have the resources they need to succeed. He was joined by Todd Western III, a sixth-generation Iowan farmer with Western Family Farms and senior donor advisor at Greater Twin Cities United Way, and Dr. Patrick Schnable, a distinguished professor at Iowa State University and co-founder of Dryland Genetics.

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Segment Guests

Patrick Schanble

Dr. Patrick Schanble is a distinguished professor at Iowa State University and co-founder of Dryland Genetics in Ames, Iowa.

Todd Western

Todd Western III is a farmer with Western Family Farms and a Senior Donor Advisor for the Greater Twin Cities United Way in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Climate change is having a profound effect on agriculture. Farmers are facing intensifying drought and heat stress on crops, leading many to wonder what will agriculture look like 50 years from now.

As you know, we like to focus on solutions to climate change. In May, we took the show to Ames, Iowa, where we know a lot of farmers live and where we talked about those solutions from innovative farming techniques to ensuring that Iowa’s farmers of color have the resources they need to succeed. It was an eye-opening discussion. Have a listen.

Here to tell us about how they do all of that are my guests. Let me introduce them to you. Todd Western III, a sixth-generation Iowan farmer and Senior Donor Advisor at Greater Twin Cities United Way, and Dr. Patrick Schnabel, a distinguished professor at Iowa State University and co-founder of Dryland Genetics. Welcome, all of you, to Science Friday.






Dr. Schnabel, let me talk to you first. Climate change is, like we would maybe say in Iowa, fertile ground– sorry– for agricultural innovation. Let’s start by talking about some of the biggest effects of climate change on farming over the last decade. What’s at stake here?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: OK. So agriculture is one of the human species’ greatest inventions. We depend on about a handful of crops for civilization. Something goes wrong with those, we’re in real trouble. And the crops we developed were tuned for the environment of the last 10,000 years. Now that that’s changing, the crops are going to need to change too, or we’re going to have significant problems.

So you laid some of this out. It’s going to be hotter. There’ll be more variable rainfall. So we’ll have floods. We’ll have droughts. We’ll have frosts at different periods. We’ll have new insects and diseases coming in. The challenges are enormous.

What’s exciting is I think if we put our minds to this, we can solve many of them. What worries me is whether we will get our act together and do what needs to be done.

IRA FLATOW: And why would we not get our– what would be some of the hindrances to that?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Well, one of them is until recently, a lot of people didn’t believe it was happening. It’s real. The USDA just put out a new plant hardiness map which shows that I can grow things in my garden in Ames that I couldn’t have grown when I first moved here 40 years ago because it’s warmer.

IRA FLATOW: Right. I’ve noticed that in my own garden back in the Northeast. And the season’s like two weeks longer.


IRA FLATOW: And Todd, I know you’re a farmer. Sixth generation?


IRA FLATOW: Ah. Congratulations to you right here. Have you noticed these changes over the time you’ve been a farmer?

TODD WESTERN III: Yes, absolutely. Every farmer has noticed that. It’s drier. The conditions are not conducive for the crops that we used to grow. So we have to make modifications and things of that nature.

IRA FLATOW: And most farms in Iowa grow corn and soybeans. Those are the two main crops. It’s a two-crop state. But you and your son, Patrick, made an accidental discovery a while back that led to a third potentially great solution. Tell us about that.

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Yeah. So this is a fun story. So my son is also a plant scientist. And he was doing an experiment in the greenhouse growing maybe 100 different species of grasses, and he was going to study the gene expression in those grasses. And he grew them to the seedling stage, harvested his tissue, did the experiment and left the plants in the greenhouse. Forgot about them. Didn’t water them.

Eventually, the greenhouse manager came by and said, you’ve got to clean that mess out. And he went over there, and everything was, in fact, dead except for one plant. And he said, what’s that? And it turns out to be a crop called proso millet.

And he did a great deal of research about the crop. Came back for Christmas time. We celebrated Christmas together. And we spent the entire week talking about proso millet.

It’s the most water-efficient crop on the planet. It uses less water for each pound of grain produced. And that’s how it was able to do this. It survived, and it actually produced grain without being watered for a month or two.

IRA FLATOW: Can I buy this millet on a store shelves?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Yeah. It’s a global crop. A lot of it’s grown in India, China. In the US, it’s grown in Northwest Colorado, Western Nebraska, South Dakota, and so forth.

IRA FLATOW: So if you continue to do research on it, is that– what we’re looking at here is this millet– what else could you do with it? What kind of potential does it have?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Well, this is the thing. So maybe just give a little context here, which is we know there are going to be droughts, as Todd was saying. We’re going to have less water. You can try to make a high-yielding crop like corn more water efficient, or you can take a water-efficient crop and try to increase its yield. So that’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve increased the yield.

So where does it go I think is your question. A lot of it’s used for human food in Asia, and some in here– in the US– it’s used– granola bars and stuff. It’s gluten free. But I think the big opportunity is are animal feed– it’s sustainable animal feed and sustainable fuel, like ethanol.

IRA FLATOW: Like Ethanol.

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Yeah. Sustainable aviation fuel is the new one.

IRA FLATOW: Has it gone in that direction yet?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: We’ve done the tests. We’ve done animal feeding studies. It’s basically a drop-in substitute for corn. We’ve done ethanol conversions, and it is very similar to corn for that. So we’re doing scale-ups now with an ethanol plant down in Kansas.

IRA FLATOW: Chicken feed, too?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Chicken feed is a really interesting one. So I told you it’s water efficient. If you take laying hens, and you feed them with proso millet instead of corn, you save 10 to 15 gallons of water for every egg.

IRA FLATOW: Per egg.

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Per egg. So we can print things on eggs now. Maybe you’ve seen this, is could imagine a water drop printed on the egg with the number 10 on the inside of it, and you’re fixing breakfast for the kids. Every egg you feed them, save 10 to 15 gallons of water.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Wow. That’s amazing.


So let’s say you’re interested in this as a farmer.

TODD WESTERN III: I’m already going to sign up.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that was my next question. Can he sign up, or other farmers, sign up for this stuff? Where?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Yeah. So there’s an established market out in the Western plains. There’s not a great solution for Iowa yet. We’re working on that. Once we get it into the ethanol plants, you’ll be customer number seven or something. I mean, we’ll get you on it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what’s keeping it? Do you need extra equipment, new kinds of equipment?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: No. That’s another thing. So this crop is– anybody who grows corn or soybeans already has all the equipment they need. It’s the same planters, the same harvesters. Everything’s there. And there are supply chains built. But what we’ll need to do is have markets for Todd so he doesn’t have to haul the grain all the way out to Colorado to get it sold.

IRA FLATOW: Can we move him up to number five, maybe, instead of seven?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: You know, everything’s negotiable.


IRA FLATOW: Todd, I know we’re talking about new solutions for farmers and your family. I mentioned six generations.


IRA FLATOW: Has deep history.

TODD WESTERN III: Deep history.

IRA FLATOW: Deep history. Tell us about. How far back do you go, and tell us about that family history.

TODD WESTERN III: So it’s a long history. And so the way I do it is I put it in chapters because it is a long, rich history. And so I put it in chapters.

So our family bought their way out of slavery in 1790 in Virginia.


TODD WESTERN III: 1790. And they made the move across the country, and they settled in Iowa in 1864. And then from 1790, we settled in 1864 in Mahaska County. And you got to remember at that time in Mahaska County, there were a lot of things going on in the 1800s. And so for the next 110 years, from 1864 to 1974, the legacy was born. The foundation was made. And so the Western legacy of farming began.

At that time, there were only 524 black people in Mahaska County, and so we were one of those 524. So at that point is when we built legacy, family. And it was built on resiliency.

And so the last– when I became involved, if you look at the last 30 years leading up to 1974, my father and his sisters farmed that farm, created a legacy, created a community. They were well respected.

And so from 1974, that’s when we took over the farm. Because at that point, my dad, when he got out of the army, he was the first Black supervisor at John Deere in 1968, where he worked for 41 years at John Deere.

And then tragedy strikes in 2008. My father was training for his 13th Chicago Marathon, and he had a bicycle accident. And so he was one week from his birthday and nine months from retirement. And yeah, it was rough. And so that put a big hole in our family. And so it was in July.

And so about three weeks after the funeral, you got all the shock and awe and disbelief. And then me and my brothers looked at each other and was like, holy crap, there’s still a crop in the field. Like, we got to–

So at that point, you think, OK, now, where did dad put the keys? What did he do with this? How did he do this? How did he do this? And so you’re thinking this is going to happen 20 years from now.

And so we banded together, and we got that crop out of the field. And so from 2008 to 2015, we were pretty much on autopilot. And we just did whatever dad did. And so whatever dad did, that’s what we did.

So in 2015, what we realized is we have to be better stewards of the land, and we have to create better efficiencies in the farm. So my mom comes out of retirement. Now, you have to understand, my mom is like 5 foot 4, but walks 8 foot tall. So she is a go-getter.

And now, remember, my mom was a city girl from Chicago. She knows nothing about farming. She knows how to help, but she knows nothing about farming. So in 2015, seeing the need to improve the soil health of our farm, she jumps full bore into farming and learning agriculture.

She’s a woman of faith. And so because of her faith, God led that path, and they put a lot of angels in her path. And she really was the heroine there, where she created the relationships with all the state agencies– FSA, USDA, NRCS, Iowa State Extension office. They were all very welcoming to her and helped her understand the programs. And that’s when we found out about regenerative agriculture.

IRA FLATOW: Well, let me stop you there because I get asked more times by people who come up to me and say, I want to pitch a story to you. Why don’t you talk about regenerative agriculture? And so now, I’ve got the guy sitting in the chair. Tell me how you do that and what that is.

TODD WESTERN III: So regenerative agriculture– first of all, it’s up and coming. It’s not well known, especially in 2015 when we tried to get into it. Thankfully, Iowa State Extension Office and all the great offices helped us get into it.

And what we do is– there’s many variations of it. But the core of it is we do no till, which, by the way, is not fun. When you grow up tilling, and you want to tear up the dirt.

IRA FLATOW: It means you don’t plow the–

TODD WESTERN III: We don’t plow. We don’t disc. We don’t do anything. That was a huge disappointment with regenerative agriculture, let me tell you.


So now we got–

IRA FLATOW: How do you plant the seeds if you don’t plow? Tell me.

TODD WESTERN III: I’ll tell you.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Go in the weeds on this, so to speak. Go in– you know.

TODD WESTERN III: So the main thing to remember, and they’ll probably agree with this, the soil doesn’t need your help. The soil has its own mechanism. The soil has its own time to do things. We just do it as humans to get it bigger, better, and greener.

And so what we do is we do no till. We do cereal rye cover crops, and we do nutrient management, and we let Mother Earth do the rest. And so what happens is, is when you plant that cereal rye, it holds that earth together. It creates a mechanism, it creates the biomass in there. It creates the worms to get in there. And the earth does its magic. And so by the time you go to plant it, it’s ready for you. And you plant right into the cereal rye.

Now, I don’t recommend– we plant our cereal rye, and we let us get to 5, 6, 7 feet tall, and it works. So if you ever wondered how high you can get it, we let ours get about 7 feet tall, and we plant right into it.

IRA FLATOW: We like to talk about the microbiome that’s in our gut. So there’s this microbiome in the soil, too, that keeps it healthy. And that’s what you’re talking about, not ripping it up with plowing, but letting the microbiome flourish.

TODD WESTERN III: Right. Right. Exactly.

IRA FLATOW: And this is successful. The yield is successful.

TODD WESTERN III: So, yeah. So then what happens is, is that we began to see the soil health improve. And how we knew that is because every year we see less and less weeds in the field when we go to plant.

And also, you see the remnants of the cereal rye still there because we haven’t actually planted the cereal rye in the last two years for various reasons, but the natural habitation started to grow itself. And so we saw better soil health. We saw better yields. Consequently, we saw better profits.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. And how hard is it for other farmers to adopt this kind of technique?

TODD WESTERN III: I would say the biggest thing is they have to want to get the information, and the state agencies have to be able to get that information to them. And so once that information is there, there is step-by-step on how to do that.

And also, reach out to your farmers. I mean, I’m– we were the test dummy in our area. And we worked with other farmers, and it was very well.

IRA FLATOW: And you were in the papers in the headlines last December about a conference. Tell us about that.

TODD WESTERN III: So the– being that in 2017, there were only seven Black farmers in the state of Iowa. So think about that. There’s only seven Black farmers in the state of Iowa. And I knew of one other one, and that was our neighbor, Mike Cook.

So Mike Cook and the Western family were very, very close. I made some network connections with the Iowa– with the Black farmers down South. And down there, there’s 400 strong farmers down there.

And you got to remember 1944, there were 14% of the farming community was Black. Today, there’s less than 1.4%. And I dare say, 1% of that is down South. The other 0.4% is up North.

So I wanted to create a community where we knew each other, number one. Number two, to be able to share information, and number three, to be able to highlight our contributions to farming because farming transcends any race, creed, or color. It’s all hard work. And we just want to make sure–

So the Iowa Farmers of Color was put together last year. It was a success. I thought I was going to find those seven. I’m happy to say that we found over 116 farmers of color– black, white, Asian. You name it. We had it there. We had interpreters.

And it went so well that the US Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. Vilsack, came to visit with us and asked us what all the hubbub was about. And so he was very impressed with what we had. So I’m very happy about that.


IRA FLATOW: Very impressive. Very impressive. I only have a few minutes left in this segment, but I want to think about– I mentioned at the top– what the future of agriculture looks like. And Pat, let me start with you. How will– let’s say, 20, 30, 50 years from now– maybe not that far ahead.

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Yeah, I hope it’s faster than that. And what I’d like to see– the cover crops that Todd mentioned. We need to start using those more. We need to get a diversity of crops in the landscape. It’s like a retirement fund. You don’t put your entire retirement fund in one stock. You need to have some diversification to reduce risk.

So we need multiple crops in Iowa, both to reduce risk, but also so farmers can rotate multiple crops and break up disease and insect cycles. And farmers want this. They’re hungry for another crop, but we need to build the markets for that.

IRA FLATOW: And let me ask you, Todd, what do you think– because you went through six generations of families. What’s your next two generations going to see different on the farm?

TODD WESTERN III: Well, actually, I have the next generations here out in the audience. I have a 10-year-old, a 11-year-old, and a one-year-old. There they are.


So yeah. So that’s why I thought it was important for them to come to this, to see this, so that they grow into this. And the future of agriculture is just communication, platforms like this. And then I hope to grow the Iowa Farmers of Color Conference to make sure that all people of color come together in a safe space to learn from each other and to know each other.

IRA FLATOW: So you’re hopeful. I mean, a lot of people are worried about the future, but you’re sounding very hopeful.

TODD WESTERN III: You have to be hopeful. When you’re a farmer, that’s all hope, right? A farmer’s– right? It’s all hope. You throw that seed in the ground, and it’s all hope from there.

IRA FLATOW: You want to give it a little boost, though.

TODD WESTERN III: Yeah, you want to give it a little boost, but it’s a lot of hope.

IRA FLATOW: And Pat, you think the same thing?

PATRICK SCHNABEL: Absolutely. We can solve this technologically. We just have to decide to do it.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want to thank all of you for taking time to be with us today. Todd Western III, who is a sixth-generation Iowan farmer and Senior Donor Advisor at Greater Twin Cities United Way, and Dr. Patrick Schnabel, a distinguished professor at Iowa State and co-founder of Dryland Genetics. Thank you for what you do and for taking time to be with us today.




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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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