Farmer-to-farmer Tips for Dealing with Climate Change

Red Salad Bowl lettuce. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

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).

 

A frosted strawberry flower with a black center. Photo Kathryn Simmons
A frosted strawberry flower with a black center.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

The challenges

  • 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.
Young blueberry bush in the snow. Credit Bridget Aleshire
Young blueberry bush in the snow.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

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 run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.
We run out stored drip-tape using a garden cart, rebar axle and four spring clamps. CREDIT: Luke J Stovall.

Some responses

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.
The 30' x 96' gothic-style hoophouse at Twin Oaks Community
The 30′ x 96′ gothic-style hoophouse at Twin Oaks Community

Some Resources

 

 

Home from CFSA, Superstorm Sandy

Beauregard sweet potato
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Superstorm Sandy didn’t do us much damage, luckily. It’s been raining for 40 hours, but we’ve only got 2.8 inches so far and it looks like it’s going to clear up later today. Despite my worries about the broken hoophouse windows blowing in and us losing our newly re-plasticked hoophouse, it didn’t happen. We didn’t have any really high winds, and we didn’t even lose power, but of course we did all the prep work.

Georgia Jet
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Yesterday we re-stacked our sweet potatoes which had finished curing (the skins don’t rub off any more). We moved them into a wire rodent-proof cage, and close-stacked them, taking away all the sticks that spaced the boxes during curing. I haven’t got numbers for the total yield yet, but it comes to 96 boxes. The Georgia Jet produced 42 boxes and the Beauregard only 32 from the same length row. Our two heirloom varieties produced three boxes each. We don’t expect many of them, but we are keeping the varieties alive, because genetic diversity is important and who knows what secret virtues these varieties have?

We also bravely spent time in the rain, digging drainage ditches to reduce the impact of the hurricane. They seem to have worked quite well. And we draped the soggy rowcovers over the frost tender crops, in anticipation of freezing conditions.

While I was away at the CFSA Conference, the crew harvested the white potatoes. We got a good yield (also no numbers yet), but we got a disappointingly large number of greened potatoes. (Green from being exposed to the light.) I think the reason is that our new experimental tractor-mounted furrow-making disks don’t make furrows as deep as we need. The walk-behind BCS furrower on the rototiller made adequate furrows, but not as good as the old Troybilt furrower. This flags a need to research better gear before March.

I had a great time at the CFSA Conference. I think there were about 700 people there. About 70 came to my workshop Growing Great Garlic, on Saturday afternoon. They were very appreciative, and I managed OK without my notes! It’s not as bad as it sounds – I had a slideshow and had practiced quite a few times, and knew it better than I would have guessed. Somehow I couldn’t get my notes on the laptop screen without them also appearing on the big screen along with lots of clutter. This flags a need to find out before my three workshops at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, January 23-26. Busy, busy.

The conference was very well organized and the food was spectacular – mostly local and sustainably grown. I had the chance to attend several workshops by other people. Tony Keinath, the vegetable pathologist at Clemson University, talked on Sustainable and Organic Approaches to Managing Cucurbit and Tomato Diseases – a very well-prepared and information-packed session. I feel in a better place to tackle next year’s plagues now. I was struck by the fact that he had seen NO benefits of using Oxidate, the hydrogen peroxide disease control product.

A workshop I found particularly valuable was Laura Lengnick‘s presentation “Is Your Farm Climate Ready?”  She is doing valuable work to help farmers get ready for climate variability. She is one of the main authors of a USDA ARS report Climate Change and Agriculture: Effect and Adaptation. Its publication date is November 14 2012. She also spoke at the August 2012 symposium of the Ecological Society of America, Climate change impacts on agricultural systems:

She suggests viewing climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as vulnerability, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). Rising air temperatures, including night temperatures, more extreme temperatures provide threats and some opportunities. Increasing CO2 levels will provide some positive effects such as faster crop growth. As far as adaptive capacity, the main feature of that aspect is our personal capacity to respond and plan. Laura Lengnick says “Greater attention to climate as critical for decision-making is expected by future generations of producers.” We need to start with ourselves.

Baby ginger, ready to be eaten, pickled, candied, frozen.
Photo East Branch Ginger

Next I attended a workshop by Susan Anderson of East Branch Ginger, and learned so much about how to do the best by this crop, that I am looking forward to an even bigger harvest next year. This year we harvested 165 pounds, and saved 65 pounds as seed stock, so we can plant a bigger patch in next year’s hoophouse.

Harvested baby ginger, about 6 months old
Photo East Branch Ginger

Meanwhile I’ve finished my next article for Growing for Market. My working title is Knowing When to Take Action. It’s the third part of my series on being a resilient farmer. This article includes scouting and monitoring for pests and diseases; using pest and disease forecast services; and being prepared for the effects of extreme high and low temperatures. When is it time to cut your losses? A big part of the article is a table of soil temperatures to help when deciding planting and harvesting dates.