Posted: May 9, 2013 8:22 PM by Matt Jones - MTN News
Updated: May 9, 2013 8:23 PM
GREAT FALLS - The agriculture industry employs tens of thousands of people in Montana and as the largest industry in the state, makes up about a third of our economy.
But climate change and declining interest by a younger generations poses a challenge for the future of agriculture.
As technology has become more advanced and the climate has changed, plant breeders and people working in agricultural research have had to evolve and adjust to these changes.
Jeff Rumney, the State Grain Lab bureau chief, said, "Plant breeders over time have developed varieties that have potentially higher yields but also have better pest resistance and are better adapted to the dry environment that we live in and better adapted to the heat that we have in Montana."
Through proper tillage practices, wheat control, and improved plant varieties, today's farmers have been able increase crop yields in recent years, but climate change remains a constant worry in the back of many minds.
Dave Wichman, superintendent of the Central Ag Research Center, has worked on these research fields for 27 years and says he's noticed definite changes in the weather over time: "Drier, yeah...you know even if we have an average precip year we have more evapotranspiration so we have more moisture stress...even 2011 when we had record amounts of precipitation but come late June the moisture shut off and we actually had drought stress conditions on our crops that year."
Stronger winds and higher temperatures over the years has led to this increase in evaporation rates and that is hurting Montana crops.
Wichman said, "At peak growing conditions, your plants are drawing equal amount of moisture out of the soil through transpiration and so the rainfall does not go as far as it transpires quicker."
To combat this problem, researchers are testing out the latest drought and heat resistant crop strains to see how well they can tolerate Montana's harsh climate and over the years, they've made some great progress with the state's annual crop yield increasing each harvest season.
Despite this, there is concern about the next generation of plant researchers to keep this progress going...
Wichman said, "One of our challenges is finding scientists; we do not have American students going into agriculture and so finding scientists or replacements to fill the needs that we have is becoming an increasing challenge."
College and high school students seem to be losing interest in the agricultural industry compared to just a decade ago but experts in the field say there's still plenty of opportunity to be found.
Rumney said, "With new crops coming in, new cropping practices, there's more economic potential in those farms so it can support multiple generations on the same farm, so that's a great opportunity for youth in Montana."