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"I'm not a climate change guy, but...": Farmers reckon with new reality in the heartland

A Climate Reckoning in the Heartland
A climate reckoning in the heartland 23:05

Watch the CBSN Originals documentary, "A Climate Reckoning in the Heartland," in the video player above. 

Walking over soggy lifeless crops, Brett Adams, a fifth generation Nebraska farmer, paused to catch his breath. Under the dark grey clouds of the Midwestern spring, he was forced to come to terms with an alarming reality: 80% of his farmland was under freezing floodwater. 

In March 2019, record-breaking floods inundated America's breadbasket, a region that's also a key exporter of corn and soybeans to the world. Much of the Midwest was overwhelmed with floods as a result of torrential rains, frozen ground unable to absorb more water, heavy snowmelt, and a series of extreme weather events that culminated in a major winter storm—described by meteorologists as a "bomb cyclone."

Brett Adams's childhood home and main farm shop were completely under water after a "bomb cyclone" storm caused massive flooding in March 2019. CBS News

"Winter was colder than normal, overall. We also had a wetter-than-normal winter as well as fall, so the soils were at or near saturation," Nebraska State Climatologist Martha Shulski said. 

The floods damaged public infrastructure and led to the loss of crops, livestock and the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes. Nebraska's governor said that in that state alone alone, the cost of damage has surpassed $1.3 billion. 

"I lay around at night and think about it, you know, and try to estimate how much these grain bins are going to cost to replace, how much corn I had in them that's now laying in the water that's ruined... how much, if any, of it's going to be salvageable," Adams said. 

Like many farmers in the area, Adams's land runs along the Missouri River, the longest waterway in the U.S. The storms breached levees that were built decades ago to protect the areas along the banks. Much of the flood-prevention infrastructure was built 70 years ago, but over the last three decades, the region has seen about an 8% increase in precipitation. 

The levee breach near Brett Adams's farm was one of 50 in the 2019 flooding. CBS News

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for the management of the country's levee systems, say they've seen record runoff in the past 15 years. This historic flood has made it clear that unpredictable weather patterns are getting more extreme. After massive flooding in 2011, the Corps had to repair five breaches. So far in 2019, they are dealing with 50. 

"Our current goal is to close all the breaches by March of 2020," said Matthew Krajewski, the Readiness Branch Chief of the Army Corps of Engineers. However, if the Corps were to update the levee to newer engineering standards — to help it withstand the rising flood levels predicted in the coming years — they would need funding approval from the U.S. Congress. 

A recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that the U.S has seen the wettest 12 months on record, with an average of 38 inches of rain falling from July 2018 to June 2019.

Adams put it in personal terms. "When I was a kid," he said, "an inch of rain, or an inch and a half of rain, was a big deal. Now it's like we get four- or five-inch rains all the time, or six-inch rains, even. That was unheard of."

"I'm not a climate change guy, as far as climate change, global warming, or any of that stuff," Adams said. "But have I seen the weather change in, say, my 20-year farming career? Absolutely."

In response to these troubling changes, some farmers in Nebraska are considering new solutions to keep their businesses afloat. One of those farmers, Graham Christensen, travels the country discussing a green farming initiative called regenerative farming.  

Farmer and social media influencer on struggles and opportunities in farming industry 11:42

Regenerative farming advocates say their practices foster healthier soil and can support a wider variety of crops, providing more opportunities for farmers to profit. The soil can also absorb more water, lessening the impact of floods. 

"If everybody was utilizing more regenerative practices based on increasing soil health, this flood wouldn't have been so damaging," Christensen said. "We're working against the ecosystem instead of with it."

Modern agriculture and food production aren't just impacted by climate change — they also contribute to it. According to the EPA, more than 8% of all U.S greenhouse gas emissions in 2017 came from the agriculture sector.

Changing the terminology about climate change to bridge political divide 07:16

While some farmers in conservative parts of the country may be reluctant to define increasingly extreme weather as climate change, Christensen says with each storm, more attitudes start to change.

"There's more and more people every day that are drawing the connection to that — 'No, I've never seen this, my parents have never seen this, and my grandparents have never seen this,'" Christensen said. 

"So every time stuff like this happens, you see more folks that are more opened up to some of these concerns around the climate that we're talking about." 

Rising sea levels, high-tide flooding and the impact climate change is having on U.S. coasts 05:22
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