Mid-Missouri farmers fight drought with hope in sustainability
Story, videos and design by Amy Schaffer and Cara Penquite
Audio by Amy Schaffer
While images of searing hot weather and summertime conditions might come to mind with the word "drought," farmers in mid-Missouri do not get a break from the challenges of drought during colder seasons.
Almost 95% of Missouri counties are in a drought, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Most of mid-Missouri will stay in "drought remains but improves" conditions until January, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration said.
Several local farmers use innovative techniques to protect their livelihoods and the environment during these conditions.
Relying on Roots
Driving along gravel roads in rural Missouri, it's common to pass by fields of cattle. But visible from the road in Kirksville is Cheha Ranch, where bison roam and tall prairie grasses bloom, reminiscent of Missouri wildlife from decades ago.
Cheha Ranch co-owner Alan Perry does what he can to give back to the land and has not missed the benefits.
"Our goal is just to try to find a way to be successful in agriculture without destroying the ecosystem or the environment," Alan Perry said. "That's why we went with the bison and the warm season grasses because you kind of bring back how the land was."
Native Missouri prairie plants grow long roots that dig deeper into the ground than cool-season grasses, which are the typical choice for cattle farmers. Cheha Ranch co-owner Hannah Perry explained that these long roots saved their grasses during the drought.
"The cool-season grasses weren't growing at all, and the warm season was fine this summer," Hannah Perry said."So that's how we could continue to feed our animals, as we still had our grass."
Usually, farmers start feeding animals hay when pastures have been grazed down in late fall. Even with more diverse prairie grasses at Cheha Ranch, the farm had to start feeding hay a month earlier than it would during a normal year.
Keeping things covered
Near Laddonia in late fall, dust rises as farmers are busy harvesting their soybeans. Within a few weeks, the rows will be replaced with cover crops.
Cover crops are planted in the off-season to maintain soil health. They cover the ground, but don’t grow with the intention of producing a big harvest. Without anything to cover the earth, rainwater can sweep through a field and cause harmful erosion. Leaving the soil exposed also eliminates any opportunity to fertilize the ground, something that cover crops like kale and wheat do naturally through their root systems.
Charles Ellis, a field specialist in agricultural engineering with MU Extension, has researched cover crops on his friend Brian Willott's farm for decades. Ellis, who is based in Lincoln County, said that without these crops, Willott's farm would not have been as resilient through the drought.
"Cover crops over time increase organic matter, which increases water holding capacity of soil, which increases infiltration rates," Ellis said. "The more immediate way to get water in the soil is to slow it down, give it more time to infiltrate. Also, (cover crops) shield the soil from sunlight during the growing season with a mulching effect."
However, cover cropping takes time and money to see results. A single season of growing them doesn't guarantee a high yield, and it doesn't immediately build-up a field's soil health. This risk could land a farmer in financial trouble, deterring many from using the technique. But, Ellis stays hopeful.
"One bad experience, it's hard to come back and try again,” Ellis said. "But one bad experience is not proof that it's always going to be that way, you know? That’s the way my brain is wired, I guess."
Retaining the rain
The serene rolling hills of The Mother Farm — just 20 minutes away from downtown Columbia — is home to goats, fruit orchards, veggie and berry patches, piglets, sheep and two herding dogs.
But in the farm's ever shrinking pond are rows of dead American Lotus, dried out and rustling in the wind.
Groundwater is a major source of water for crop irrigation, according to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Dwindling ponds can mean shrinking water supplies for many farmers.
Being a smaller operation, the Mother Farm gets its water from Consolidated Public Water Supply District No. 9 of Boone County rather than its pond. Rather, the Mother Farm's pond creates a home for organisms that benefit the farm's overall health.
Susan Nagel, the farm's director, protects the land as best she can. The farm practices no-till farming, which keeps from disrupting microorganisms and protects against the effects of climate change.
"Part of climate change is torrential rains, and we're getting rain in fewer events around the world," Nagel said. "If you have a tilled field, there's absolutely nothing to prevent it from just being completely scoured."
Nagel applies compost to the no-till veggie patch and grows cover crops in the winter. Small strips between rows catch runoff rainfall. Nagel also rotates her farm animals between pastures.
"When you have a lush pasture that is not tilled and not over grazed, that will capture water in those rain events and retain it versus an over-grazed pasture or a tilled pasture that will lose it," Nagel said.