A Tornado in February: Implementing Farmland Protection to Counter Climate Change - American Farmland Trust

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A Tornado in February: Implementing Farmland Protection to Counter Climate Change

Photos of storm system provided by Midwest Region staff living near the tornado’s affected areas on February 8th, 2024.

On  February 8, my post-work walk along Lake Mendota was interrupted by splashes of rain hitting the ice. The rain was accompanied by wind, then rapid-fire thunder and lightning. Watching an unseasonal thunderstorm roll across the icy lake stirred deep unease.

Hours later, a tornado ripped through south-central Wisconsin, razing barns, toppling tractors, and destroying homes. It was the first recorded February tornado in Wisconsin.

Events like midwinter tornadoes can no longer be attributed to strange, singular weather events. The impacts of climate change are becoming a persistent reality. I joined American Farmland Trust (AFT) as Midwest Farmland Coordinator in December because these record-breaking occurrences increasingly affect agriculture and imperil our food supply. Farmers are bearing the impacts of unpredictable, severe weather events, including droughts, flooding, and fire. The losses are often widespread and devastating; a poor growing season or major infrastructure damage can place farming communities in financial peril.

Working as a vineyard intern in Napa Valley during the infamous 2020 harvest, the Glass Fire raged across the valley and prematurely ended the harvest season. The fire destroyed century-old grapevines and incinerated wineries. Thousands of tons of fruit were left on the vines, spoiled by smoke contamination. Witnessing the devastation of the country’s most unique agricultural landscape solidified my conviction that addressing climate change is a now, not a when or if we can.

In my two months with AFT, I have learned how farmland protection is implemented to address pressing issues in agriculture, including prohibitive land costs for beginning farmers and heightened development pressures. However, the impacts of farmland protection through easements can reach beyond landscape-level impacts: farmland conservation easements are a crucial tool in mitigating the effects of climate change.

A significant climate challenge is that converting productive farmland to low-density residential development disrupts soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Crops continuously remove carbon from the air and retain it in the soil by feeding beneficial organisms, but this cycle ceases when the soil is paved over and built upon. In addition to disrupting carbon sequestration, development introduces new local sources of greenhouse gas emissions, including household energy use and vehicle emissions. Keeping farmland as farmland avoids additional greenhouse gas emissions and ensures crucial carbon cycling processes are continued. To learn more about avoided greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration in farmland protection, read Agricultural Land Protection: An Essential Tool for Fighting Climate Change.

Protected farmland also provides the flexibility to adapt to climate mitigation strategies. Agricultural conservation easement language is typically broad, non-prescriptive, and designated at lower protection levels than traditional conservation easements. This is to account for future advancements in farming technology, techniques, and climate adaptation strategies. As we learn more about the impacts of climate change and the best strategies to mitigate its effects, protected farmland can change and adapt in tandem.

Conversely, adapting infrastructure and existing development is challenging and resource-intensive. A former colleague once remarked, “It is difficult to un-grow a house if you need to.” Strategically planning for development that mitigates sprawl and does not permanently remove vital agricultural lands from production is essential. Where farmland is at risk, farmland conservation easements are a powerful tool to avoid the possibility of development in perpetuity.

While agriculture faces immense threats as extreme weather events become increasingly prevalent, it also presents valuable opportunities to mitigate climate change. Implementing agricultural conservation easements is an integral component in addressing this multifaceted and daunting issue. To learn more about farmland protection work happening in the Midwest, visit the Wisconsin Farmland Protection partnership webpage or contact me at fcrubaugh@farmland.org .

Central Illinois backyard of Midwest staff experiencing their first major storm of the season, February 16th-20th, when it was all gone.


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Floreal Crubaugh

Midwest Farmland Coordinator


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