As I read Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture I was struck by the many good ideas from farmers and growers for reducing the risks of climate change on our livelihood. The major transformation being brought by climate change is hard to consider. Producing food in the face of an increasingly erratic and unpredictable climate will be a big challenge. Here I will list the challenges and the practices mentioned by the farmers interviewed for the book. In the future I will explore some of the ideas in more detail.
Laura Lengnick’s framework
The vulnerability of each farm to the adverse effects of climate change is a combination of its exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity.
- Exposure is the term for the conditions the region is facing: the severity of the risks. Collectively, we can reduce exposure overall by reducing emissions and increasing carbon sequestration. These broad efforts are vital, but will have less immediate effects at a farm level.
- Sensitivity is a measure of how much a given farm is affected by those conditions. For example, if the farm in a flood plain in a region that can expect more floods in future, the sensitivity is higher than for farms in other regions, or farms in that region on high land.
- Exposure and sensitivity together decide just how bad the effects of climate change could be.
- Assessing the farm’s sensitivities provides a good starting point for planning adaptive strategies.
- Adaptation is the most successful method for addressing the local challenges of climate change. Adaptive capacity includes our individual capability to respond and plan, our knowledge and understanding of the options, as well as each farm’s particular combination of economic, social and ecological conditions (the operating context).
- Water issues (too much and too little) are being the most immediate changes in conditions.
- Rising summer air temperatures, including night temperatures.
- Average temperatures are set to rise 4-10 F before the end of this century, depending on our national reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, if any.
- Colder winter and spring temperatures affecting bud burst of fruit and nut trees.
- More extreme temperatures outside of our experience.
- Increasing CO2 levels will provide some positive effects such as faster crop growth and earlier harvests.
- Weeds which can grow faster than before.
- Different bugs.
- Different pest mammals.
- Different plant diseases.
- Hurricanes and other strong winds.
- The East has become a bit warmer and has heavier rainfall/snowfall, while the West has become hotter and has a smaller percentage change in the amount of heavy precipitation.
In the Southeast, farmers already report
- More frequent extreme weather events of all types, more often.
- More frequent summer droughts,
- More and hotter heat waves,
- Higher summer humidity,
- Increased intensity of hurricanes,
- Starting around 1980, the length of the frost-free season in the SE became 6 days longer. Ours is the region of the US with the smallest change.
- The Southeast has seen a 27% increase in the amount of rain and snow dropping down as very heavy precipitation.
We need to be ready for these challenges, at the same time as we reduce our own carbon footprints and campaign for national changes. In some cases we have already been practicing some of the skills we’ll need. Other practices we will need to make a conscious effort to learn.
- Grow a diversity of crops and livestock to spread the risk. Whatever the weather, something will grow (surely?)
- Diversify to include some annual vegetables because of problems with late frosts or insufficient chilling hours that can lead to a complete crop failure in perennial crops such as fruits and nuts.
- Grow mixtures of cover crop seed, cocktails of 10 – 20 different cover crops, to increase the chance of improving the soil and gaining longer-term benefits of resilience.
- Build soil organic matter been more than we have been doing.
- Learn from our experience (monitor crops, keep good records, adjust planting schedules).
- Stop growing the most challenging crops.
- Consider focusing on spring and fall crops, reducing crop production in mid-summer.
- Learn from the experience of other local farmers (pool our wisdom)
- Consult farmers in regions that have been hotter/wetter/drier and have had pest and disease issues we anticipate.
- Pay attention to the weather and learn to forecast local weather.
- Make plans we are prepared to change as conditions change. Resilience.
- For risky crops, have a Plan B if conditions are not right at planting time or harvest time.
- Have enough workers, seeds and machines to take advantage of smaller windows of opportunity.
- Take advantage of any changes we can benefit from. Some vegetable growers noted the arrival of longer growing seasons, and particularly, a longer fall season before cold weather arrived.
- Improve irrigation systems and access to water supplies.
- Learn the water needs and critical periods for water for each crop we grow.
- Improve soil drainage and soil water-holding capacity.
- Bring more land into production.
- Increase yields by intensifying production.
- Plant shelter belt trees to reduce impact of increased strength winds.
- Learn about C3 and C4 plants. Production of C3 plants increases as CO2 increases, but are less productive under hot and dry conditions. We’ll need to be paying attention.
- Learn about Growing Degree Days and how to use this information to make decisions based on current conditions. Almanacs from the 19th century won’t help us decide planting dates any more.
- Practice sustainable soil nutrient cycling for maximum benefits.
- Use hoophouses for weather-protection as well as season extension and pest protection.
- If fruit crops are an important part of your farm, invest in wind machines to combat spring frosts during bloom.
- Keep a living root in the ground at all times – reduce periods of unplanted soil.
- Consider cross-training: vegetable growers look at including some livestock, livestock farmers look at including some vegetables.
- Healthy soil is underground insurance in extreme weather events
- ATTRA’s Drought Resource Guide
- ATTRA’s Drought Resistant Soil
- ATTRA Agriculture, Climate Change and Carbon Sequestration
- SARE’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably
- Michigan State University report Study shows crop rotation has positive impact on soil microbes and long-term land sustainability