“We have to work with nature, we can't fight it,” Doug Hisken, a Belle Plaine, KS, area farmer said about this year’s overly wet weather leading to flooding problems across much of the state.
From rising prices at the grocery store, extra-long commutes due to road closures to the tax dollars spent repairing those flood damaged roads, this year's wet start has taken a heavy toll on all Kansans.
“Everybody took it on the chin this year,” said Darin Williams, a Waverly area farmer.
But scientists say there's a way to at least decrease the amount of damage natural disasters can do and it all starts in the farm fields.
Last year agriculture accounted for more than 40-percent of the Kansas economy. That's pretty standard. Did you know how Kansas farmers do their job also impacts our daily lives? And changing it, could change some of the problems we've seen this year from the unusual weather.
Kansas has seen it before, when a change in weather patterns in the 1930s created a natural disaster affecting all of us, the Dust Bowl.
“The dust storms and things, that's kind of the opposite problem, but it's all related, you know?” Hisken said.
Scientists agree, saying dust storms from extreme drought and this year's flooding both come back to how farmers get their crops in the ground.
“Soil acts as kind of a living sponge. and so it takes in and filters out any contaminants that are within that, in that water system. It also holds and stores water,” said Candy Thomas, a soil health specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) based in Salina, Kansas.
She says healthy soil can hold more water, meaning it's less likely to flood and get washed away during wet years. And, it will hold onto that water during the drought years, helping crops keep growing.
“We're trying to bridge that gap for our crops to uptake as much moisture as they can and for the roots to stay as cool as they can,” Williams explained. “So they can produce as much grain as possible till we can get to that next rain.”
While urbanization has paved over many areas that used to absorb water, farmers like Hisken and Williams say there's still a lot they can do to slow down flooding.
“Man has been very irresponsible through the history of mankind in terms of how they've managed their soil,” Hisken said.
Thomas spends much of her time traveling the Midwest teaching farming methods designed to better do just that.
She says better soil management may not be able to prevent flooding like we've seen this year, but it could certainly make it less disastrous.
“We were able to start holding more water,” Williams said about the difference he saw in his fields after implementing Thomas’ methods. “When these heavy rains would come, we would start getting more water infiltrated into the ground.”
They’re talking about to-till farming.
It involves four basic steps.
One: minimize disturbance of the soil. That means no plowing or tilling between crops, leave the ground as undisturbed as possible.
“Maintaining the soil structure and keeping it in place are critical things for me,” Hisken said.
Two: keep the ground covered. Plant cover crops with deep roots in between cash crops and/or leave the remains of the last crop in the ground. This lets the plants develop deeper roots, which holds the soil in place. It also shades the ground from moisture’s natural enemies, the sun and the wind.
Williams says not only does this make crops healthier and more drought resistant, it also makes them easier to plant. He points to a part of his field, about the size of a man’s palm, where the ground is bare. He taps it with a sharp metal pointer.
“I can't puncture through that. It's hard on top. And that's what happens with the sun and the wind. it bakes the soil out,” Williams explains.
Water can’t get through this tough soil that’s almost the consistency of concrete, either.
“But if we move over here to the residue,” he adds, moving a few feet over where the ground is thickly covered in remnants of rye and corn crops, “look how easy that goes in the ground. I just pushed that in the ground 4 inches.”
Three: start working on what's in the soil. Replenish the nutrients used to feed crops by rotating what you plant, what one crop takes out of the soil, the next one puts back in.
Then, four: add the animals back into the system. That means both those that live in the soil and those that live above it.
Thomas sinks a shovel into the ground in the middle of one of Williams’ fields, pulling out handfuls of rich, dark dirt. She breaks it apart, showing all the animals living in it.
“They're living the good life here,” she said, pointing out all the earthworms encased in the handfuls of dirt. “These guys, when they get in the soil system, this is what it's all about, is building and creating this pore space. These earthworms create these channels that are entrenched with nutrients.”
Then she points to a pill bug slowly unrolling on the shovel.
“And then the isopods, the roly poly sow bugs, they're good too, cause they breakdown this residue at the surface,” she said. “Which is good food source for these worms, as well. All of these guys together create this really fantastic environment, which you can see big pores for the water to run down through. Super important.”
No-Till farmers generally enter the process one step at a time, but Williams went all in when he returned to farming nearly a decade ago.
“We saw an immediate difference early on, you know, even in the first year. But at about the fourth year, we really started seeing the ability to hold a lot more water,” he said. Though he continues to see improvement every year. “You've got to look at it as a system that builds itself every year, you know, every year you're improving it.”
Now, in this year of flooding, he's profiting from that decision.
When asked what difference he’s seeing between his fields and those of his neighbors who don’t practice no-till and cover crop farming, he said, “Well, number one would be the temperature of the soil.”
The prime temperature for growing healthy plants, Williams says, is in the mid-70s to mid-80s. When Thomas turns a heat gun on the ground in his fields, the areas with cover over them measure in the mid-70s. The few areas that are bare are already into the 100s.
And, while Williams’ neighbors are repairing flood damage to their fields, he's already planting.
“You're standing in a field right here that took on five inches of rain in an hour, you know, two weeks ago,” Williams said. “And we're planting it today without, you know, erosion issues.”
But few farmers are as ready to make these changes as Williams.
When asked how many Kansas farmers are using these No-Till farming methods, Thomas pauses a moment before answering.
“Not as many as I would like, obviously,” she eventually said. “Between five and 10% are utilizing the cover crops like Darin is using. No-Till is around 30 to 50%.”
While KAKE News was unable to find a vocal, organized opposition to the No-Till movement, many Kansas farmers appear unwilling to give up methods they know work to gamble on something new.
Hisken says it’s a necessity.
“You would think after the thirties, when we had drifts of soil equivalent to snow and covered up fences, that we would not have that happen again. But we still have dust clouds similar to the thirties,” he said. “We can't let this keep happening the way it's been happening…We know that we have to maintain that legacy for generations to come….We have to be willing to learn from our mistakes. We have to be willing to learn from history. And we need to be willing to change what we can change.”
Meanwhile, Williams says going all in on all four steps of the No-Till/Cover Crop process has paid off in ways he hadn’t expected. He’s found the cover crop process protects his fields from weeds, letting him spend less money on herbicides while the better nutrition in the soil has increased his yields.
“I just can't see how using less chemical and fertilizer and making more money per acre is a bad thing,” he smiled.
Which leads us right back to water safety concerns. Fewer chemicals on fields means what water does still run off in a rainy year like this one is less likely to cause dangerous contamination of water supplies downstream.