Our most recent family trip across Nebraska felt gloomy, and it wasn’t just my 10-year-old son sobbing in the back seat about leaving Colorado and the cousins behind. A blizzard was forecast.
We were on track to miss it, but still signs of peril were all around. Over much of the horizon hung a menacing gray cloud. In front of us were Interstate signs, flashing warnings about strong winds and snow to come. In my hand were weather tweets and texts, all saying: Danger!
Maybe it was nature’s way of foreshadowing another story of doom on the horizon: the latest news on climate change. The federal government had released a bombshell report that put a price tag on what climate change could cost the United States.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment wasn’t just talking about California burning or Texas swamping or Florida falling to hurricanes. It also focused on the nation’s agricultural midsection, which already is seeing wetter springs and hotter summers. One nightmare possibility: plunging crop yields.
The report felt like a sign over the Interstate, a warning for the farm country we were traveling through. Curb emissions now, the report says. And be prepared to adapt.
Climate change has become a charged issue in this volatile political environment. Though President Donald Trump’s administration released the report, which was mandated by law and produced by 300 scientists, the president immediately said he didn’t buy it.
As our van rolled across the Nebraska landscape, I peered at a view that is achingly familiar and also overlooked. Colorado might have us on mountains. But Nebraska’s vastness always struck me as promising, stable, solid, infinite. For the first time, I saw the state as fragile. I felt like crawling into the back seat with my son. And crying too.
What about other Nebraskans, those who spend far more time outdoors, whose livelihoods depend on the soil and the air? What are they seeing? How are they adjusting? And do they, too, feel like crying? Or are they like my husband at the wheel — warned, prepared and resolute about getting to safety?
Del Ficke and Keith Dittrich are climate change believers. But the two eastern Nebraska farmers — Ficke farms west of Lincoln; Dittrich farms near Tilden, about two dozen miles west of Norfolk — say they aren’t typical of most farmers they know.
Many of their fellow farmers chalk up the changes that are happening beneath their feet to fickle Mother Nature and Nebraska being Nebraska, Ficke and Dittrich said.
“They don’t want to talk about (climate change),” Dittrich said. “Can’t bring up the subject.”
But Ficke, 51, is a convert. Dittrich, 59, has long bought in. He is trying to boost wind production and has a wind turbine. Both pride themselves on no-till farming, which they say is one thing farmers could do to preserve soil that gets depleted by constant turnover, requires more water and more easily erodes with rainstorms that are happening with much greater intensity.
Ficke says it seems like his farm in Seward County doesn’t experience gentle rainstorms but “crazy 3- or 5-inch or 10-inch events.” The National Climate Assessment warns that the Northern Great Plains, which includes Nebraska, and the Midwest, which includes Iowa, will become hotter and more humid with more extreme weather events. The report says that wetter soil can increase yields in some places but pose other challenges: pests, wilt and a destabilization of the soil, putting roads, bridges and railroad tracks at risk.
Ficke, whose name rhymes with “pike,” prides himself on “regenerative” farming methods that help preserve the soil. It’s also been good for business. Ficke drastically shrunk the amount of land he plants and increased his profit, by improving yields, slashing machinery and chemical costs.
Nebraska farmers and ranchers are rightfully proud of occupying property their ancestors did and will describe their ownership lineage by generation. To Ficke, a fifth-generation farmer, “the only generations that matter are the generations after me.”
If Nebraska farmers don’t change how they farm, he said, climate change will force them to do it.
Dittrich began noticing changes several years ago, when he saw June bugs appear in March. He said the too-wet soil already has shrunk a tight corn-planting window. He said he’s having to adjust by retrofitting his planter to make it do the job faster.
He has also invested in more wind insurance because fierce windstorms in recent years knocked a lot of corn to the ground. He knows of neighboring farmers using more fungicide to ward off wet-weather blights.
“I’ve never seen that happen before in my life, and I’ve just harvested my 40th crop,” Dittrich said.
Sandhills rancher Barb Cooksley answered her phone in her “office,” a souped-up all-terrain vehicle that she spends all day in to check on her 900-head cattle herd on a ranch she and husband George own west of Broken Bow. I could hear cows low, a tractor whoosh by and a clank-clank-clank sound.
“I’m breaking ice on tanks for the cattle,” said the 60-year-old, adding, “which is not surprising to do in late November.”
Cooksley believes that the climate has been changing for millennia. She has well-digging records that show her ranch’s past lives under different climates. She is also participating in a state effort to collect climate data at various places around Nebraska. Twice a year, she submits anecdotal descriptions of what’s happening on her ranch — “a reality check on the ground.”
Cooksley, former president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, knows climate change is a problem and wishes it wasn’t so politically charged. She doesn’t prescribe a fix; that question is too huge, she says. She said people need to communicate, work together and explore different ideas.
And they can do things on their own. She and George use solar and wind energy. They recycle. They graze their cattle in ways that leave grasses intact to anchor the fragile sandy soil.
“Tell people, don’t be afraid,” she said. “Get informed. Talk. Listen. Learn. But don’t be afraid.”
Another Sandhills rancher, Sarah Sortum, figures that she can’t control the weather but she can manage her family’s scenic Loup County ranch, which she dubs “a rain forest” in its ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Sortum is proud of the fact that nearly all of her family’s 12,000 acres are native prairie grass, which soaks up carbon dioxide.
She sidestepped the climate change questions, saying the term is too charged, she doesn’t know enough about the science and isn’t comfortable taking sides in what she views as a polarizing issue. She also feels that animal agriculture is unjustly blamed as a major contributor to climate change.
She said carbon emissions from fossil fuels are causing the Earth to run into trouble, and she views her role as a land steward, helping mitigate that by growing the prairie grass to absorb what carbon it can.
Being outside so much gives her hope and makes her eager to share the beauty of her family property with others, “so that it becomes more real and tangible to them, something that matters to them on a deeper level.”
The family, including Sortum’s parents and brother, run a cow-calf operation that bears her parents’ last name, Switzer. They also do Calamus Outfitters, which supplies kayaks, canoes and other outdoor gear for the nearby Calamus River and reservoir. In addition, the family runs a popular lodge on their land. Sortum loves to ferry guests in open-air jeep rides around the landscape that offers beautiful vistas and wildlife.
The 40-year-old mother of children ages 12 and 10 does wonder what her future grandchildren will face on this property. She was raised on the Sandhills value that you take care of the land and the land takes care of you. Will it?
“It does seem like there’s not that happy balance so much anymore,” she said of weather patterns. “It’s just one (extreme) or the other, it seems like.”
Martha Shulski, director of the Nebraska state climate office, said that climate impacts are local and that addressing them takes “a village, really” of the experts and everyday people affected.
She said a lot of great work toward understanding and responding to climate change already is occurring in Nebraska. She said she begins with common, immediate concerns and tries to remain hopeful.
“It is dire. We need to act sooner rather than later,” she said. But pointing to the recent successful landing of the rover on Mars, she said that “humanity can accomplish incredible things if people put their minds and willpower to it.”
Any Nebraska farmer or rancher knows it’s better to be prepared than to be caught off guard. The state is steeped in a tradition of adaptation. As nature and our own federal government flash giant warning signs, how will we collectively respond?
Sobbing and tuning out on the Interstate didn’t get us home to Omaha. The driver did. With hands at the wheel looking fearlessly ahead, foot firmly on the pedal. Taking action.