How Will We Produce Food in the New Era of Climate Extremes? The Solution Lies in The Soil.

by Graham Christensen, guest blogger

At the recent Nebraska Farmers Union Convention Dr. Martha Shulski, our State Climatologist who co-authored the 4th National Climate Assessment, eerily foretold to a large group of farmers that we are moving into a new era of weather extremes. Dr. Shulski also noted it was likely that as farmers, we would need to consider a change in our farming practices due to extreme climatic events if we expected to maintain sustainable businesses. Only 3 months later the 2019 Bomb Cyclone hit the midwest, and a perfect storm of conditions led to a series of catastrophic flooding events that cost our farmers millions of dollars. Many of these costs took years of sweat investment and will never be recovered.

This slide from the 4th National Climate Assessment presented by Dr. Shulski, highlights Nebraska’s changing climate and the challenges farmers will face in upcoming years.

This slide from the 4th National Climate Assessment presented by Dr. Shulski, highlights Nebraska’s changing climate and the challenges farmers will face in upcoming years.

As the water recedes, at least for now, Nebraskans face an unknown climatic future. While the future may be uncertain, there is no doubt the recent events have sent a ripple across the Great Plains. Farmers, such as those in our family, now must address how to conduct their farm business differently to adapt to the rapidly changing weather patterns. The good news is that Nebraska farmers have a heightened sense of awareness about the possible risks they face moving forward. 

At the same time the Bomb Cyclone hit, U.S. farmers were facing their 5th year in a row of making less money than it cost to produce their product. Today, we are in the worst economic downtown for farmers since the Farm Crisis in the 1980s, with bankruptcies and farmer suicides both on the rise in alarming numbers and one more generation of farmers migrating off of the land. This pattern puts our food security and the future of the independent family farm at risk, which opens the door for further corporate consolidation of the food production industry. That trend puts our climate future in extreme and irreversible danger as it is well known that the current agricultural system is inefficient and has become one of the leading climate culprits. This is not something as a farmer I take lightly or am proud of, but agriculture is also the solution. So now we are faced with a very important crossroads in our history and this just may be our last chance to get things turned around.

What is the future for farmers in Nebraska? The good news is that farmers are a resilient bunch and over time have been a species of adaptation. Very small, inexpensive changes to the farming operation can keep farmers on the land and also have an enormous impact to our land, air, and water. Farmers now have an opportunity to serve on the front lines in the fight against rising greenhouse gas emissions and for the preservation of healthy soil, clean air and water.   

How can farmers lead? Soil health and regenerative farming practices have been used by farming stewards for thousands of years, tracing back to farming’s indigenous roots. However, the current degenerative model that is aggressively being placed into Nebraska has severely degraded the land to the point that now the Food and Agricultural Organization predicts we only have 60 harvests left due to over-tillage and excess chemical exposure. For years, we have been told that technology and genetic modification (which is different than natural plant breeding) would help us “feed the world” and become more resilient to extremes, but it appears the chemical and seed company’s claims were untrue as we have experienced exactly the opposite. 

As more farmers are becoming aware of these untruths, more of us are breaking the relationship with destructive companies and adopting the regenerative principles practiced by our ancestors. Regenerative practices include no-tillage, cover cropping, multi-crop rotations (in addition to corn and soy), re-introduction of livestock across the land and away from large concentrated feeding operations, and agro-forestry and silvopasture.

These Nebraska grassfed cattle are enjoying the protection of trees in a silvopasture design that helps increase the fertility of the soil. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

These Nebraska grassfed cattle are enjoying the protection of trees in a silvopasture design that helps increase the fertility of the soil. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

Every time a farmer implements these new practices, they create more roots in the ground for carbon storage and increased water filtration, and these roots enhance the natural biological cycle in the soil. So not only is the farm drawing down significant amounts of CO2, but it is also effectively reducing methane (grassfed diets yield less methane emissions) and nitrous oxide emissions (from elimination of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers), which are even more harmful than CO2. Furthermore, the global scientific community is saying the farmer’s role in greenhouse gas reduction may give us our only real chance to drawdown emissions back to stable levels.

Aspiring young farmers learn about holistic grazing management of livestock in a multi-species cover cropping rotation. This soil has become significantly more productive since it went regenerative. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

Aspiring young farmers learn about holistic grazing management of livestock in a multi-species cover cropping rotation. This soil has become significantly more productive since it went regenerative. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

How can farmers transition when they are already losing money? As a young farmer, finding a route to transition to regenerative agriculture within a more conservative family mindset can be tricky. Kitchen table conversations regarding transitioning stalemate quickly unless it can be shown that the new practices provide long-term economic viability to the family farm business. 

Luckily, innovative farmers all over the country, as well as right here in Nebraska, are already leading the way in the low-cost, low-risk transition to sink more carbon, while increasing profitability on every acre. These farmers are showcasing a direct pathway to a climate-resilient future. That is encouraging for farmers who are contemplating what is next for their multi-generational family farms. This more human approach yields new and increased opportunities for young people to return to the land.

Randy Ruppert shows off his conservation farm near Nickerson, NE. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

Randy Ruppert shows off his conservation farm near Nickerson, NE. Photo credit: Alexis Bonogofsky

If I am not a farmer what can I even do? With one more generation of farmers removed from the land, rural folks have little political representation or food purchasing power. The true power lies in the hand of an intellectual urban food consumer. If we are all truly committed to greenhouse gas drawdown, the consumer must demand a more nutritious, regenerative approach that starts to pay the farmer (and others involved in food production) a fair wage. 

If the consumer does not demand regenerative products and practices, you can expect a future with less nutritious soil (and therefore less nutritious food), foul air, and increasingly toxic and harder-to-find water resources. The only way to truly protect you and your family is to “Know Your Farmer.” When the relationship between the farmer and the consumer has been reunited our society will again flourish. 

For starts, information on what farmers and businesses you can be proud to support can be found in RegeNErate Nebraska’s “Regeneration Proclamation.” The 2nd edition comes out in May.

Urban farming is also an important part of the regenerative picture, providing more opportunities for large population centers, including lower-income communities, to thrive even in extreme times. Since technology and modification have failed to “feed the world,” we must seek more logical human-based approaches. This means we must better utilize vacated urban lots to grow food, breaking down food access barriers, all the while improving soil health, clean air, and species habitat & diversity within city limits. 

In recent years East Omaha has seen a growth in community gardens helping to create food-secure and healthier neighborhoods. Photo credit: Ariel Panowicz

In recent years East Omaha has seen a growth in community gardens helping to create food-secure and healthier neighborhoods. Photo credit: Ariel Panowicz

In the current political climate, it may seem that we have a daunting task ahead. However, the solution in Nebraska is crystal clear, and it lies in the soil. With our abundance of natural resources, Nebraskans have a unique opportunity to stand together, both urban and rural, on the front lines of the fight to drawdown. Government or not, we must rebuild Nebraska’s communities from the soil up 

Graham P. Christensen is a fifth-generation Nebraska family farmer, the President & Founder of GC Resolve, the State Secretary of the Nebraska Farmers Union, and co-founder of RegeNErate Nebraska. Graham farms with his family in rural Burt County, Nebraska.

What helps me get up every morning in the midst of the climate crisis...

by Rev. Carol Windrum, guest blogger


With the ten to twelve year window looming before a possible cataclysmic climate change, the burden of sorrow and worry can become too heavy. Several words come to mind as I seek ways to be a positive energy in the world:  awe, grace, community and action.

The first time I was invited to chew a single grape at a mindfulness retreat, it was as though I had never really tasted a grape before. With no distractions of noise or hurry, the slow enjoyment of sweetness, juice and texture was overwhelming. It was a gift offered from the universe. Taking the time to simply be in awe of the wondrous presence of sun, air, water, and dirt all combined in that single grape was a miracle. Too often I think I'm too busy to receive the gifts of nature all around me. So coping with harsh realities, there are still miracles present every day,  in every breath, which can nourish my soul. In this consumptive and hurried culture, we are not encouraged to STOP and be still with nature. A Native American saying offers great wisdom for these times: "Don't just do something, stand there."

I'm the type that tends to think everything is up to me. In a way, that is a kind of idolatry, placing me at the center of the world, most important change agent that ever was! Taking myself down a peg or two is a good reminder that I am not responsible for every piece of plastic in the ocean or every jet plume in the sky. Grace can give me space to breathe and be kind to myself.  

There are several groups that I belong to who are working hard for climate justice. I am inspired by many who have become experts on climate related issues. Their motivation isn't status or money or power. Their motivation is a deep love for our planet and all it's inhabitants, human and non-human. Their knowledge and passion give me positive energy! I am humbled to be with them and inspired that I, too, can make a difference. Without community, I would be in total despair. And, we do more than our fair share of playing even in the midst of the challenge...I remember the Emma Goldman quote: "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." So working hard and playing hard with community feeds my soul!

And out of the community, I am refreshed to take action. Sitting around complaining and worrying gets old and sucks the life out of me. Action=Hope for me. So I try to identify small and large actions to take, not knowing if they will help turn the tide, but knowing that I owe it to myself and this awesome creation to try.  And there are plenty of examples of others taking action that prompt me to step up. Most recently I am energized (and challenged) by 16 year old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish student who is striking for the planet and has inspired thousands of other youth to strike as well. She is claiming her power and calling on me and others to do the same. Talk is cheap, action is what is needed. Deep gratitude to Greta and the millions of other activists around the world. They remind me that we are truly "in this together."

The Call of the Seed

by Cait Caughey, Director of Education

I received a scholarship to attend Seed School this past October in Denver with the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance. This weeklong training brought together farmers, seed activists, and agriculture educators from around the world. This was one of the best trainings I've attended as an educator and farmer. Perhaps that is because I just cannot get over the power of seeds! The leaders of Seed School posed this question: "What is the most powerful technology available to us?”

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The answer is seeds. 

Here we are today in a face-paced, constantly changing world with the internet and communication devices constantly at our fingertips, yet do any of these technologies or devices have the ability to self-replicate? Do any of these technologies have the potential to adapt and become resilient to our changing environment? If left to their own, would they spread and persevere within constantly changing conditions? 
As a farmer I plant seeds, tending and harvesting the crops they bring, but a lot of the time it stops there. At the organic and sustainable agriculture trainings and programs I've attended seed saving as part of a whole farm system isn't even mentioned.

Every winter I drool over seed catalogs (which is totally legitimate, seed catalogs are indeed worth drooling over!), but still the bulk of my farming is reliant on seed sources and seed companies that are not local. Many gardeners purchase "native" plants but these seeds are sourced nowhere near where we live and are, most certainly, not local. We often don't know where our seeds came from, who grew them, or where the farm was located that saved these seeds. It is concerning to learn that some of my favorite seed companies are now outsourcing the labor of seed production to other countries in order to maximize profits. It is concerning to learn that more and more seeds are being patented, making certain varieties illegal to save because they are no longer seeds of the people, but rather seeds that belong to corporations and a select few. What does this mean for resilient farm systems?

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When we are talking about regenerative or sustainable agriculture we have to look at creating closed loop systems, hyper-local systems, systems that can be maintained and replicated over and over again with limited outside inputs. We also have to consider how climate change is and will continue to affect food production. Seeds, I believe, are a critical part of addressing this concern, yet the conversation about seeds is often missing. Seeds are resilient. Seeds adapt. When we allow our crops to go to seed, collect that seed, and share that seed with others we hold in our hands genetic material that is specifically formatted to our immediate microclimate(s), to our bioregion, providing us with knowledge that, as a human species, we cannot fully understand.

I remember the first time it crossed my mind to save my own seeds, plucking seed pods off of plants, recognizing that I held in my hand something with the potential to continue again, grow again, create life again. I remember the feeling when friends and family gathered to harvest and thresh seeds at my past farm. It was something of connecting with an ancestral past. I remember crying at the Seed Savers Conference in Decorah, Iowa as I listened to Rowen White speak truth to power and share stories of her ancestral seeds. It all starts with a seed, an embryo that holds within it the past, the present, and the future. Each time I open a seed packet, pour seeds into the hands of young children during our garden classes, or process seeds I am reminded of the power and potential held inside every individual seed.

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These are questions I am asking myself as we transition into 2019: What can we do to localize seeds in our foodshed? How can we come together to make sure we are resilient as individuals and communities? How can we support one another to make sure we have a strong source of seeds that are grown right here, available and accessible for everyone?


Finally, I want to thank all of my seed mentors and especially Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance for the opportunity to be a part of Seed School. The staff and seed educators of RMSA believe in the open-sourced sharing of knowledge. They believe in a future where seeds are (once again) proliferated, protected, and accessible. I also want to highlight the work of the Common Soil Seed Library and Meadowlark Hearth, both entities that are working towards these goals as well. If you are not familiar with the efforts of our Omaha seed library or a Nebraska farm committed to growing out regional seeds, please do check them out and support their work!

Do you want to learn more about seed saving? Do you want to become a seed keeper? Join us at The Big Garden in 2019 as we dive further into what is possible when we not only cultivate our locally-grown crops, but also locally-grown seed. Stay tuned at www.biggarden.org and Facebook for upcoming Big Garden workshops and events.

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Hope in the Trenches

by Nathan Morgan, Executive Director

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Every four years, the U.S. federal government issues a national climate assessment. The most recent report was issued in November, and it hasn’t gotten the attention it should. It paints a disturbing picture of rising temperatures and sea levels alongside declines in agricultural production and human health. I’m grateful to the scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies for providing this climate assessment as they do every four years by law. 

Policy makers at the federal and state level may say that they don’t believe in climate change, but science has a funny way of not caring about individuals’ opinions, no matter what office they hold. The science is clear: climate change is happening, it is caused by human activity, and we are feeling the effects of it now. That fact is no longer in debate, except among a group of politicians and pundits who are often influenced by powerful interests heavily invested in maintaining the status quo.  

Even without the effects of climate change, global food insecurity will likely increase in the coming decades. Production of staple grain crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans has plateaued over the past 20 years, while population growth has continued to increase dramatically, especially in the developing world. This is a scenario for increasing food insecurity that will be most likely felt by the worlds poor most acutely.  

Those of us in the U.S. will not be completely immune to this phenomenon. As worldwide demand outstrips supply, food prices will increase. This will impact low-income communities most severely and will make existing efforts to deal with food insecurity that much more difficult. Since so much of the diet of low-income people is based on corn, wheat and soy, increases in the cost of these staple crops will exacerbate poverty in our region. We don’t know the extent of this but we know it is coming.

photo courtesy of the Ilissa Ocko, EDF scientist

photo courtesy of the Ilissa Ocko, EDF scientist

Climate Change is the unpredictable elephant in the room when it comes to food insecurity. The scientific consensus is that as global temperatures rise, commodity crop yields will fall. There is no consensus on just how much yields will fall because the amount of temperature increase in the future is a moving target. The Paris Climate Accords set a goal to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius. But there is no guarantee that this goal will be reached. According to researchers at the University of Illinois, crop yields will decline by 30-46% over the next 50 years based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change most conservative scenario.

Farmers are nothing if not adaptable, so the worst case scenario may not be the most likely one, but so many of the kids and adults that The Big Garden serves already live on the ragged edge of hunger. It keeps me up at night worrying about whether they will be able to adapt. And I keep asking myself what more we can do to help. 

I don’t have any answers, but I do have a few ideas, and I remain hopeful. One thing that The Big Garden will continue to do is to teach kids from low-income families how to grow their own food. This may be the most important skill they can have in the future. Next, we will be even more committed to collaboration. No one organization has all the answers to ending hunger and poverty, and no one organization can do it all. We will partner with others make our community more resilient to the challenges that may come. And if, as seems likely, we have to grow more of the food we eat here locally, The Big Garden will work to make sure that urban agriculture is an economic engine for low-income neighborhoods. I think growing more of Omaha’s food in Omaha, bodes well for a tasty and more prosperous future for the people we serve. I’m excited that we can be a small part in making that happen. 

We are living in a time of monumental change. So many of the systems and institutions that we have relied on and assumed would always be there are looking shaky and starting to crumble. Governments, churches, universities, and communities around the world are struggling to make sense of what is happening and what might come next. Uncertainty seems to rule the day. But in that uncertainty, I find hope. The truth is we don’t know what is coming next, and that means the future is not set. Old ways of doing things that have marginalized those without power, status or money and have harmed the Earth,  may well be the ones that change. And that will be a good thing.  

It won’t be easy. Building more compassionate, resilient and just communities is a lifetime job. But it is good work to do. I encourage you to find a cause that speaks to you and get to work. Plant a garden, mentor a child, comfort those in need. This moment needs the very best you can offer. If we are wise enough, compassionate enough, and work hard enough, the world that will emerge from these wrenching changes can be one we are proud to leave to our children and grand children. I’ll see you in the trenches.

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Reflections on the Refugee Travel Ban

by Nathan Morgan, Executive Director

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During my first week at The Big Garden nearly five years ago, I was working with a volunteer team of church youth from a small town in central Nebraska. We were helping a community of recent refugees from Bhutan with their new garden. At the time I didn't know that Bhutan was a country or where on Earth it was (turns out it is in central Asia, up high in the Himalayas near Nepal). These central Nebraskans worked side-by-side with central Asians, tilling up the garden, weeding and planting seedlings that spring Saturday. We didn't speak one another's language but with smiles, hand gestures, and some help from the Bhutanese teens who were quickly learning English, we got the garden in good shape. The rows were straight, the plants looked healthy, and there were lots of handshakes, bows, and even a few hugs shared over a job well done. 

As we were packing up tools and getting ready to go, several elderly women, the Grandmothers, came out of the adjacent apartment complex with over a dozen cups of tea. It was their way of saying thank you for the hard work everyone had done. We all sat in a big circle sharing tea and stories as best we could. It was a powerful experience for us native Nebraskans, that transcended race, economic status, religion, language, and geography. It has stuck with me all these years. 

The next summer I went back to that garden and talked with the president of the Bhutanese Refugee Association. He talked about how when he and the other refugees came to Omaha and were placed in their apartments, they were scared to go outside. After just a few days in their new homes, there had been a shooting in the parking lot. None of the refugees were involved, but it scared them just the same. Bhutan is an agricultural nation and many of the refugees had experience growing food. Dhurga, the refugee association president thought that a garden would be a great way to grow food, get his people outside, and build community. The Big Garden was honored to be able to help. After just one year of gardening, there hadn't been any crime in the apartment complex. The Bhutanese population in Omaha has gone on to open businesses, create jobs, and is beginning to be woven into the fabric of our community. We are grateful to work with them and have learned a lot about growing healthy produce from their expertise.

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The Big Garden was planted by United Methodists. Our faith tradition is very clear that we are to welcome the stranger into our land. To do less is to be in violation of one of the basic tenets of our faith. The current ban on immigrants and refugees from selected majority Muslim countries is morally wrong, and people of faith must stand against it. Our United Methodist Church has taken a clear position on this issue. The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society, has released a statement in opposition to this ban. Harriett Jane Olson, Chief Executive Officer of the United Methodist Women has issued a statement as well. The Big Garden is proud to stand with our United Methodist colleagues in opposition to this ban on immigrants and refugees. I encourage you to contact your elected representatives and voice your opposition to this ban by calling the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Now is the time to stand up and make our voices heard.

Dr. King's Vison for America

by Nathan Morgan, Executive Director

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Dr. King's vision was audacious 50 years ago, and it still is today. When 1 in 3 African American children are food insecure, and when the largest food desert in Nebraska by population is centered in North Omaha, there is no way to deny the racism inherent in the current food system. Dr. King's voice still calls us to account for our actions. This is the reality. What are we going to do to change it?

Hunger, in African American communities and others, is not an issue of food production. It is an issue of priorities. What is important to us as a community, as a society? It is painfully obvious that making sure that African American kids don't go hungry is not a priority. We prioritize many things, as a society, but making sure African American kids have full stomachs apparently costs too much. 

So much political rhetoric is focused on disparaging the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that keeps food on the table for many low income families. We hear that there is rampant abuse in the program, but this simply isn't true. We hear that private charities will step in and fill the gap if SNAP benefits are cut. Let me assure you, The Big Garden and our partners at food pantries and homeless shelters will work ourselves to death to help those in need, but it is impossible for private charities to make up the difference if there are significant reductions in SNAP benefits. If cuts to governmental food assistance programs become a reality, more people in our community will go hungry. That is a simple fact. Anyone who says otherwise is either misinformed or disingenuous. 

Less than 1% of SNAP benefits go to households that are ineligible according to 2014 statistics.

In 2015, African-Americans were more than twice as likely to be unemployed (10%) as their White counterparts (5%).


So, what do we do? We organize. We organize in our churches and our neighborhoods. We contact our elected officials and tell them that they have to prioritize addressing hunger in our communities. That SNAP benefits are a vital to keeping African American kids' stomachs full and that the thought of cutting programs that help the hungry, in this the richest country the world has ever known, is disgraceful. But we don't stop there; we advocate for fairer wages for those who work but don't make enough to feed their families, we call for increased resources for job training because the best ticket out of poverty is a good paying job. I encourage you to keep watching this space, in the coming months we'll be sharing resources that you can use to oppose policies that will mean more hungry people in our communities. So stay tuned. 

Dr. King had the audacity to believe that we are better than this. It is long past time that we proved that his belief was not misplaced.
Let's get to work.


P.S. You can find further statistics about African American food insecurity and poverty on the Feeding America website.

P.P.S. For information about current hunger & poverty legislation in Congress, visit the Bread for the World website.