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How Farmers Can Fight Climate Change

This article also appears in the September 2019 issue of Acres U.SA.

There is a new climate paradigm in town, and it is bringing radical changes to farm fields across the nation and around the world. On the short list of weather craziness is heavy spells of unexpected precipitation, more frequent and severe floods, fluctuating temperatures, crop-killing droughts, devastating super-storms and unpredictable “zone creep.”

The Carbon Dilemma

Once referred to as global warming, climate change was first brought to the attention of the majority of the American public in 2006 with Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, which warned that global warming trends were directly linked to rapidly increasing carbon levels in the atmosphere. Of course, Gore didn’t invent global warming any more than he did the internet, because scientists have been discussing and studying the phenomenon since the latter part of the Industrial Revolution (1760-1850).

Avoiding the deluge of climate data is near impossible these days, but some still don’t fully understand what climate change is or what it means for the world, much less for farmers. The short explanation is that weather patterns are not the same as they once were and affect various regions in different ways. These changes are thought to be caused by the build-up of excessive amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, ozone and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere.

Conversely, there are some in the scientific community who steadfastly claim that these alterations in the climate should be attributed to nothing more than the natural cycle of earth’s climate, which has been in motion since the dawn of time.

For those who believe in the modern theory of greenhouse gases, carbon is among the worst of the offenders. The most common explanation of how these greenhouse gases got into the atmosphere in the first place points at pollutants from as many sources as you can imagine, including smokestack industries, automobile emissions, general over-consumption, and, of course, belching cows. And while this article is not meant to address the question of why the weather is changing as much as how it is changing and what farmers can do to get ahead of the curve, we would be remiss if we didn’t briefly touch on the issue of carbon from the farmer’s perspective.

Carbon is one of the primary building blocks of life on earth – without it, life as we know it will cease to exist. The overall plan to sequester, or lock up, carbon in various ways should and does naturally lead to ecological farming. In a 1971 interview with Charles Walters reprinted in the May 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A., the illustrious Dr. William Albrecht succinctly explained the carbon issue when he said, “You’ve got to maintain the living soil and not a dead soil. And the moment you start putting nitrogen on the soil, you burn the carbon out. And you burn out more than you put in.”

Albrecht went on to explain that it is reduced carbons (carbon atoms bonded to oppositely charged elements in the soil) that hold all of the other attributes of healthy living soil, like minerals, nitrogen and microbes, together. Albrecht concludes that when the carbon is gone, the living soil is dead.

Sadly, this profound truth perfectly describes the soils that most conventional farmers grow their crops in. Depleted and dead soils need to be force-fed tons of chemical fertilizers year after year. This leads to chemical-laden food with low nutritional value and an atmosphere filled with carbon that has been burned out of the soil. With roughly 900 million acres of farmland in North America alone, many believe that it is time for America to stop conventional carbon-burning farming practices in favor of carbon-sequestering, sustainable farming practices for all forms of agriculture.

Soil erosion after heavy rains
University of Vermont Extension’s Joshua Faulkner standing in some serious erosion from heavy rains. (Photo by Vern Grubinger)

Research in the Fields

To understand the real-world impacts climate change is having on farmers, I turned to Alissa White from the University of Vermont. White obtained her B.S. from the University of California Santa Cruz, where she studied agroecology and sustainable agriculture.

Over the course of 15 years, White has worked in farming, horticulture, education and community organizing and is currently enrolled at UVM as a Doctoral student in the Department of Plant and Soil Science. White also serves as the university’s liaison to the USDA Northeast Climate Hub and as a Graduate Student Climate Adaptation Partner (GradCAP), working on climate adaptation in agriculture. In this role, she works with UVM staff and USDA Hub leadership to develop a digital library of information based on their research that can be shared with other academics, scientists, agencies and farmers.

“My work at the University of Vermont is all about community engagement,” she said. “Bringing farmers’ perspectives and voices into the research process and making sure that there is an ongoing conversation about what matters to them.”

White’s engagement also includes participation in UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), the principles and goals of which focus on understanding and seeking solutions to issues surrounding food systems.

Her contribution to the ALC is the New England Adaptation Survey for Vegetable and Fruit Growers, which is funded by USDA/SARE grants and advised by Joshua Faulkner, farming and climate change program coordinator for UVM Extension’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture. White says her survey seeks to understand how diversified vegetable and berry farms in the northeastern U.S. are adapting to the increasingly extreme weather associated with climate change and what resources they need for resilience.

“When I first started working with the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative, my job was to interview stakeholders that had been involved in research on agricultural climate resilience in Vermont and identify the needs for ongoing research. One of the big lessons from that work was that different kinds of farms have very different vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies to climate change. There are some universal ideas, but farmers want information that’s relevant to their specific context,” she said.

White describes the two phases of the work that she and her team of undergraduate students have undertaken in the last three years: “The first phase was a regional survey which asked farmers to identify the changes they had made in response to extreme weather, changes they were planning to make, what they thought the most promising and innovative ideas for dealing with extreme weather were.” This part of the 2017-18 survey is available online.

“In the second phase of the research, I went back to the farming community and held focus groups,” she said. “The purpose of those conversations was to ask farmers to identify what kinds of resources they need for resilience. We just finished the focus groups and are working on the final report this summer.”

Impacts of Climate Change

When asked how the climate had changed in her region and issues that farmers were experiencing because of those changes, White said that the increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events in the region is “the big story for the Northeast.” She also pointed out that summer droughts were becoming more common and were projected to intensify in the future.

This model is very similar to the one related to me by Dr. Kenneth Blumenfeld, senior climatologist at the Minnesota State Climate Office in St. Paul, Minnesota. Blumenfeld summed up the current and future trends for the Midwest by saying that the overall trend is wetter with more severe storms in spring, with hotter summers, punctuated by occasional drought and high humidity, which encourages mold on grain and cereal crops.

He also said that the extreme cold winters, typical of the region, are becoming less common. Blumenfeld feels that the changes we are currently seeing are simply the ups and downs of cyclical change and that the earth is simply going through another natural adaptation in the climate.

He encouragingly said, “It’s important to remember that right now is not forever. There is always variability along any trend and ,one day, even this one will change.”

White also believes that these trends will continue.

“These weather extremes are projected to intensify in the future,” she said. “Drought and excess moisture are responsible for over 70 percent of crop losses reported to the Farm Service Agency in recent years, so these two precipitation extremes of too much water and too little water are shaping how farmers make decisions.”

She also says that farmers in her area now require irrigation during the summer months, which wasn’t typical of the area before. “Excessive rain has caused a lot of problems for growers with washed-out seeds, big increases in erosion, ponding in new areas, wetter soils that restrict plant growth and tractor access, increases in fungal diseases and nutrient losses.”

White also said that many of the farmers she has surveyed have told her that the wetter springs have forced them to delay planting. This has been a huge issue this spring, with dire predictions of shortages of commodity crops this fall coming from various agencies.

“A friend of mine at the University of Maine did the math and calculated that based on historical weather data, farmers have fewer field-working days than they have historically,” said White. “I think this is really interesting because some people talk about the overall warming associated with climate change and think that we might get a longer growing season in these northern climates, but that’s not what is happening on the farms. It’s really the opposite. Farmers have been planting later because the soil is too wet to get out there early and they can’t be out in the field through the season as much because the soil is frequently saturated.”

She continued by saying, “When I spoke with farmers in Pennsylvania, some of them reported that they had received three times their annual average rainfall in the last year. They said their fields were too muddy to run a tractor through and too saturated and soupy to even plant crops successfully. Farmers reported that fields with tarps, hoop houses or row covers were the only places they were able to plant and harvest. I think it was tragic for them, and knowing that they might see more seasons like that is disheartening.”

According to White’s Adaptation Survey from 2017-18, farmers in the Northeast have seen a 71 percent increase in heavy precipitation events and an overall increase in high-rainfall events, leading to more frequent and damaging flooding. Heavy precipitation and late spring frosts are causing delays in spring plantings. This is only exacerbated by hotter and drier summers that lead to heat and water deficit stress for crops. These factors and others are also leading to increased pest and disease pressure.

This particular scenario is playing out across most of the Northeast, Midwest and Northern Plains regions with slight variations in extremes. Because of the overall increase in heavy rainfall events, erosion is a major problem across the board, including in the Southwest and Southern Plains. One of the big problems for those in the Northern Plains and lower Midwest regions is an increase in humidity. This is wreaking havoc on the harvest and storage of grain and cereal crops, which are showing a marked increase in incidences of mold.

Adaptive Management

Adaptive management is a simplified way of describing a system in which strategies for managing resources during a time of uncertainty include continually observing and analyzing problems and carefully planning and modifying the solutions based on their effects and other variables.

When I asked White about some of the adaptive management practices that farmers in her region were beginning to adopt in order to deal with these uncertain times, she said, “One of the things I’ve learned is that farmers are thinking about their farmland through a new lens. They are paying more attention to where the low points are, which fields are wetter, and looking at the way water flows across the landscape to limit erosion and direct water either away from fields or to places where they can store it for times of drought. Farmers in my region also use many different soil building strategies to create soils with really good structure.”

Healthy soils act like sponges, absorbing water when it is abundant and moving it to plants when they need it most. They are also better able to handle erosive rainfall events, hold nutrients, increase drainage, and allow the farmer to get into the field earlier in the season. Not only are farmers in her region building healthier soils, but they are taking more intensive steps to protect them from loss of topsoil, nutrient leaching and erosion.

“Farms that have clay soils or steep slopes are adopting the use of raised beds to increase drainage and reduce erosion, and many farmers are investing in hoop houses, row covers and mulches to protect crops and soils from excessive rain,” she said.

White mentions that many of her interview subjects have taken advantage of Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) incentive programs to help them invest in high-tunnel infrastructure, which don’t generally get waterlogged in heavy downpours and can be used to start seedlings and help farmers diversify their income.

The work that GradCAP student researchers like White do are supported by the USDA’s Climate Hub, which in turn supports farmers with a wealth of adaptive management resources. The site is broken down into regions and includes a plethora of articles and information for each. Topics covered include everything from erosion control to biochar production to weather and climate considerations for dairy producers.

Even though there might be some reluctance from a small segment of eco-farmers to turn to the USDA for help, the diversity of topics on this site won’t leave anyone feeling left out of the discussion. In fact, this is where researchers in sustainable ag, like Alissa White, can share their findings with farmers trying to deal with the impacts of climate change on their own.

White also said that in addition to soil building, many farmers are investing in irrigation infrastructure that includes plastic drip tape and, increasingly, plastic mulch, which is usually used for weeds and erosion benefits but is recently more appreciated for its additional benefits during drought.

“Many farmers regret the amount of plastic waste that this creates,” she said, but they are also using lots of different strategies to create new water sources around the farm, too. Some are building ponds and drilling new wells, while others are setting up water catchment systems. Many also reported placing water tanks or barrels in new places on the farm

Of the many concerns related to weather, heavy precipitation and drought ranked among the highest in White’s study, with 72 percent of respondents saying they had already made adaptive changes on their farms for heavy rainfall and flooding events; and 66 percent who had done so for drought conditions. Some of the most common actions included irrigation, drilling wells, mulching, reduced tilling, adding or increasing cover crops, improving soil health, reducing the use of herbicides, avoiding bare soil, using drought or moisture-tolerant plant varieties, staggering planting times and planting more perennial crops.

White said, “Farmers reported growing more perennial plants because they can handle the weather extremes better than annual crops. This is a strategy that the survey data correlated to be significantly associated with farms that have steep slopes, so we know that they are often used to protect soil and hold it against the forces of erosion.”

One of the main ways that farmers in her study are approaching heavy precipitation and all it entails, as well as drought and irrigation problems, is by controlling, catching, and containing excess water using time-tested methods that most farmers can accomplish on their own.

Some of these techniques include catching rainwater from buildings and high-tunnels into barrels, diverting stormwater to storage ponds for later use in irrigation, creating raised rows for crops, and generally slowing runoff to prevent erosion. This information and much more can be found in the New England Adaptation Survey online.

The key to all this, said White, is strategic whole-systems site planning.

“Create a map of your farm, identify the key opportunities and challenges, plan for extreme weather, think long term and start talking to other farmers about how weather patterns are affecting your crops,” she said. “Extension and NRCS staff are well suited to help farmers with site planning and often have engineers that can help with field and farm-scale water challenges.”

White also strongly believes that farmers themselves are among the best people to turn to for solutions to tricky problems.

“Farmer-to-farmer groups are one of the best resources that growers have for dealing with climate change, and I suggest farmers look to other farmers who grow similar crops and have similar site conditions for ideas. Farmer organization conferences are also a wealth of information on ways to deal with new problems and often feature workshops about new management strategies,” said White. “And if you think your community would like to do a survey like the one we just did in the Northeast, I’m happy to help.”

Jill Henderson is an artist, author and organic gardener. She is the editor of Show Me Oz (showmeoz.wordpress.com), a blog featuring articles on gardening, seed saving, nature ecology, wild edible and medicinal plants and culinary herbs. She has written three books: The Healing Power of Kitchen HerbsA Journey of Seasons: A Year in the Ozarks High Country and The Garden Seed Saving Guide.