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Farm report: Montana to lose millions to climate change

Farm report: Montana to lose millions to climate change

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Montana agriculture losses to climate change could total $736 million a year, estimates an economic study prepared for Montana Farmers Union.

Warmer temperatures and drier summers are withering the future of Montana spring wheat, a major cash crop for state farmers, according to the report released Wednesday.

Over time, those changing conditions will cost the state $372 million on labor earnings due to 12,167 jobs lost to declined production. Range land losses due to dry conditions and changing plant life, will cut labor earnings related to cattle production by $364 million, and job losses similar to those for grain.

“As far as most of us are concerned, it’s already happening and we’re trying to figure out how to make money with what’s already happening and stay in business,” said Erik Somerfeld, and MFU member who farms in the Golden Triangle of north central Montana.

Somerfeld, who is also a member of the policy committee for the National Farmers Union, said spring wheat has become more difficult to raise in his area because of weeds and poor summer moisture.

The report was researched by former UM economist Thomas Power and his son, Donovan, a geologist. The two published a report in late 2015 projecting 11,000 job losses in Montana's outdoor economy because of climate change. In 28 pages, the two outline the consequences of warmer daily low temperatures in the winter, as well as an increasing number of days with high temperatures of 95 degrees or warmer.

The study concludes that annual precipitation will actually increase from now to 2055, but more of that moisture will be rain, reducing winter snowpack and shortening the irrigation season. The climate forecasts are based on research by Third National Climate Assessment by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.

The assessment projects a 4 to 5 degree increase in Montana temperatures by 2055, including a decrease in the number of days when the temperature drops below 10 degrees. It also forecasts that there will be 20 fewer days a year where temperatures drop below freezing. Conversely, the number of days above 95 degrees could increase by 5 days, or as many as 15.

Power said the lost earned income from climate change included not only jobs directly tied to farming and ranching, but also service tied to businesses providing services to agriculture businesses. Agriculture is one seventh of Montana’s economy, and one of the largest non-government sectors.

Montana Farmers Union has been progressively advancing discussions on climate change since early 2015, when it collaborated on town hall meetings with Montana State University researchers and the state Department of Agriculture.

The group headquartered in Great Falls, has been cautioning farmers that planting seasons are already changing due to climate change, with earlier spring plantings, as well as a shift to fall-planted winter wheat as farmers try to avoid growing crops in summer conditions that are more hot and dry.

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