The impacts of more dramatic weather extremes affect farmers more than many other populations in the U.S., especially when it comes to water. Whether it’s the overabundance or lack thereof, the importance of water cannot be overstated.

Addressing flood impacts and solutions during a recent Pasa Sustainable Agriculture webinar were five presenters sharing their expertise on what they’ve been studying.

They noted that in Pennsylvania alone, 61 of 67 counties were declared disaster areas in 2018 due to flooding. The opposite occurred in 2022, with 25 counties declaring droughts. Other regions have seen similar and equally devastating climatic swings.

According to the NOAA, major floods cost Americans $4 billion annually – and this does not include the cost of smaller, more common flooding. Taking that into account, flooding is the leading natural cause of property damage nationwide, amounting to $12 billion per year in damages.

It’s getting worse too. FEMA reported $17 billion in direct flood losses between 2010 and 2018, which is a four-fold increase in total from the 1980s. Since 1996, 99% of American counties have experienced a flooding event.

Everything to mitigate this damage begins with soil and water infiltration. “Healthy soil is not just a pile of dirt,” declared Lara Bryant of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “With healthy structure, it sticks together.”

Bryant stated soil can really help. She noted that a 1% increase in soil organic matter (OM) can equal 20,000 gallons of water held per acre – “and that’s a conservative estimate … across a range of different geographies. Organic matter holds 10 times its weight,” she said.

Soil structure is based on its bulk density, or the weight of the soil divided by its volume. The lower the density, the better; anything higher than 1.4 bulk density is bad. Clay obviously has higher bulk density than silt, and sand has the least. As soil is plowed over time, it loses its structure and becomes more compact. It doesn’t absorb water like a sponge anymore.

To help soil bounce back, Bryant listed some practices that can increase infiltration. Planting perennials can help increase infiltration by up to 59%. Planting cover crops can boost infiltration by up to 35% – and growing both only betters your soil’s chances of recovery. Regenerative grazing practices can also increase infiltration by 34% – 68%.

“A 2023 study found a 1% increase in cover crop adoption could’ve saved $39 million in prevented planting claims,” Bryant said. Prevent planting is a form of crop insurance – if it was too wet to plant your crop, you would receive an insurance payout. In 2019, prevented planting occurred on 19 million acres across the U.S. with a record high $4.3 billion in losses.

Yasmine Dyson of the American Flood Coalition (AFC) added that a study in Iowa found multi-cropping can increase farm productivity, improve soil and water quality and reduce flooding by 40% – 60%.

Multi-cropping is when more than one crop is harvested from the same field in the same year. “It seems like a promising practice,” said Ross Evelsizer of Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation & Development.

Evelsizer noted that many regions suffer both flooding and drought events in the same year. While multi-cropping is more of a challenge for northern climates, his team is looking at how farmers can achieve it to help balance those water issues.

The objectives of their research are to determine the practice’s viability through field trials; to demonstrate the practice and its benefits; to measure field level impacts of regenerative vs. conventional management; and to scale their results to farms of all sizes.

“Multi-cropping was a practice done by Native Americans with the three sisters” – corn, squash and beans planted together – “but not really something we can do with modern equipment,” Evelsizer said.

He said the difference in crop yields is what people usually ask about first. A lot of farmers in their trial were staying within 10 to 20 bushels/acre of their normal corn yield. They also saw good increases in evapotranspiration – and through that, they can see a huge impact in flood reduction for small and mid-sized events. The research is ongoing in Iowa.

One Iowa farmer in the trial, Loran Steinlage of FLOFLO Farms, works at the same latitude as Niagara Falls. He said he first started looking at how to diversify his crop rotation in 2006 and started to see changes in his soil in 2012.

“The only time our tile line would run would be after a two-inch rain,” Steinlage said. “For every gram of carbon we have in our soil, we can hold eight grams of water. But how do we make cover crops pay?” That’s a major issue for many. Why plant what you can’t use or sell?

Steinlage said he figured out how to adjust his plantings to make them profitable, focusing on cereal rye and buckwheat, as that is where the market shifted. “It comes back to how do we compete?” he said. “We don’t have nearly the expenses in inputs that we used to but we still grow comparable yields of corn.”

He added that his farm can weather droughts almost better than floods thanks to the improved soil infiltration. “When people ask ‘How much rain did you get?’ I can say ‘All of it,’ almost to the point we have too much moisture sometimes,” he said. “We try to grow the moisture out rather than drain it out.”

Steinlage also said farmers need an adaptive mindset when starting out with something like multi-cropping, as no two years are the same. He said it seems that every year Mother Nature will educate us some more.

On the policy side of things, Kevin Zedack of the AFC noted that the Farm Bill reauthorization presents an opportunity for solutions. The AFC identified four ways Farm Bill drafters can incorporate flood resilience into the next bill:

• Make USDA disaster assistance more responsive

• Elevate flooding as a priority in conservation programs

• Develop data to determine conservation practices’ effects as a flood solution

• Strengthen USDA’s Small Watershed Programs to address flooding across jurisdictional boundaries

Zedack said it’s ultimately about taking the work that’s being done and translating it into legislation.

by Courtney Llewellyn