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How young farmers are navigating climate change on their farms

"It's a daily thing that is affecting us, because obviously, we're working with the weather on a daily basis," one farmer said.
Carolina Mueller, 30, carries feed at Middle Ground Farm in Bastrop, Texas.
Carolina Mueller, 30, carries feed at Middle Ground Farm in Bastrop, Texas, on April 14. The small vegetable farm outside of Austin lost $30,000 in crops during the severe winter freeze that struck Texas this past February.Matthew Busch / for NBC News

After farming for over six years, Carolina Mueller has learned how to adapt to the fickle and sometimes unpredictable weather patterns she has experienced over the last several seasons.

Even this winter, when harsher frosts were expected, Mueller, 30, who works at a farm owned and run by her partner in Bastrop, Texas, about 30 miles from Austin, prepared with the rest of the farm's staff by throwing row fabric covers to protect crops from the frost, putting out extra feed for animals and stocking up on propane tanks for the greenhouse.

But a deep freeze — the first in decades — caused a massive shutdown of the state's electrical grid in February, rendering propane heating and water pumps useless as Mueller and her partner were stuck in Austin for a full week because of dangerous road conditions. The couple finally returned to rows of dead crops, as well as other damage totaling over $30,000, including loss of future income.

Middle Ground Farm
After the severe freeze across Texas in February, the carrots that were planted here at Middle Ground Farm didn't survive and were instead retilled into the land for another round of planting this spring.Matthew Busch / for NBC News

"It was a really eye-opening experience for a lot of us who realized just how little we were prepared for these kinds of extreme weather events," said Mueller, who is a staff member of the National Young Farmers Coalition, a national advocacy organization, and leader of the Central Texas chapter. "We know about heat and can sort of anticipate how to handle heat, but the freeze is a whole different thing. And considering that the last time was so long ago, a lot of young farmers had no idea what to expect."

Weather patterns are crucial in farming, as they dictate every step of the crop process. As erratic climate changes have become more the norm than the exception, young farmers across the country are feeling their effects and trying to adapt, but some say they fear the future could bring more difficulties.

The Texas deep freeze has also been linked to global climate fluctuations.

The U.S. Geological Survey, a science agency of the Interior Department, says "climate change refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period of time — including precipitation, temperature, and wind patterns."

Some of the signs are globally rising temperatures due to greenhouse gases' trapping more heat in the atmosphere and longer and more extreme droughts, the agency says.

While the effects are far-reaching, farmers feel them firsthand, because agriculture and climate change are so intricately intertwined.

Newly sprouted pepper plants are protected by a plastic sheet at Middle Ground Farm.
Newly sprouted pepper plants are protected by a plastic sheet at Middle Ground Farm.Matthew Busch / for NBC News

"Crop yield, biodiversity, and water use, as well as soil health are directly affected by a changing climate. … Continued changes in the frequency and intensity of precipitation, heat waves, and other extreme events are likely, all which will impact agricultural production," the Soil Science Society of America says.

Forrest Watson, 30, is a fourth-generation farmer who works on his family's 2,800-acre dairy farm in Avon, New York, about 25 miles south of Rochester.

Watson said he has noticed very drastic weather changes, including prolonged periods of rain and drought, which have adjusted how he farms.

"It's a daily thing that is affecting us, because obviously, we're working with the weather on a daily basis. Certainly, there were different weather events before that, but the frequency of them has increased quite dramatically in the last eight years," he said. "I suspect that throughout my lifetime, it will probably become more and more difficult to rely on weather patterns and rely on a certain crop yield that we have come to expect."

Forrest Watson of Mulligan Farms.
Forrest Watson of Mulligan Farms.American Farmland Trust

Watson said that to mitigate the instability of the weather, his farm uses several practices, including cover cropping and eliminating tilling. Such measures work more naturally with the land to sequester carbon in the soil, which not only counteracts climate change but also helps improve soil health, said Watson, whose farm, Mulligan Farm, is a member of the Genesee River Demonstration Farms Network, a partnership led by American Farmland Trust, an agricultural conservation organization.

Cover crops, unlike cash crops that are ultimately harvested, are planted when the ground would otherwise be bare between cash crop seasons. The crops slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability and control weeds, among other benefits.

While it has been around for a long time, cover cropping isn't commonly used despite its benefits, Watson said.

Frank Rademacher, 26, said his family farm converted to the practice several years ago in part to counter unpredictable weather. Rademacher is a third-generation farmer in central Illinois who works on a 570-acre farm that produces non-genetically modified corn and soybeans.

Rademacher said that in addition to cover cropping, he has cut fertilizer use in half, stopped using insecticide and diversified his crops for more responsible and sustainable farming, which he said will ultimately help counter climate change.

But for newer farmers with less land, challenges are even more complex. Barriers to attaining farmland already exist when it comes to accessing the liquid and social capital necessary to acquire land, but with the volatility of weather, keeping a farm afloat even after getting it becomes a tense balancing act.

Middle Ground Farm
Jessica Lehtola, 25, left, and Lucas Askew, 26, right, harvest arugula for a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture, program at Middle Ground Farm. The program allows customers to buy the certified organic vegetables directly from the farm in exchange for a subscription.Matthew Busch / for NBC News

Bari Zeiger, 25, recently bought 11½ acres of farmland under threat of residential development in Wyoming County, New York, just outside Buffalo, after six years in farming.

Even as she is still starting her farm, which Zeiger said was difficult to buy, she is worried how she will handle highly unpredictable weather patterns.

"Farming is already pretty economically tenuous, and it becomes even more so with the volatility in frost dates and crop loss," said Zeiger, a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

"Because a lot of young farmers and new entry farmers, first-generation farmers, don't have access to the same acreage farmland that farmers did in the past, as farmland becomes priced out of value, you really think, 'How do I maximize or optimize my productivity on this small piece of land?'" she said. " So without consistent frost dates, you are unable to properly plan, which has cascading effects, because if you consider your greenhouse operation, the overhead in your greenhouse, the heat in the structure, the water in the structure, all these costs add up."

Zeiger and many other young farmers say solutions have many factors, including giving direct payments or subsidies to farmers for ecosystem services, including soil health; investing in cover cropping and other practices that promote land resiliency; and help in diversifying crops for farms.

It will take a combination of incentives and regulation, Zeiger said. She said there also needs to be an emphasis on lifting up the next generation of young farmers and more diverse farmers so they can start their operations in a sustainable way.

Last month, top oil and gas industry lobbying groups endorsed putting a federal price on carbon dioxide emissions, a significant shift to demonstrate seriousness in addressing climate change.

President Joe Biden promised to push for a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package with massive investments in clean energy and efficiency, but even if it is passed, the package alone might not be enough to bring greenhouse gas emissions into check.

Carolina Mueller, who has begun rebuilding after the deep freeze, said that without real acknowledgment of climate change by policymakers and tangible action, farming will continue to get more difficult.

Middle Ground Farm
Lorig Hawkins, 37, second left, owner and operator of Middle Ground Farm, poses with two of her employees, Lucas Askew, 26, left, and Jessica Lehtola, 25, and her partner Carolina Mueller, 30, right.Matthew Busch / for NBC News

Despite some movement on the issue, climate change remains highly politicized among legislators around the country. During the Trump administration, the Environmental Protection Agency actually removed climate change data from its website.

"We might be able to handle it now or in the short term, but we're barreling into a disaster, and people still have their ears plugged because they don't want to think about it," she said. "I'm terrified that if we don't take action quickly and take big action on multiple levels that it will be impossible to be a farmer."