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

 

 

Book Review, Resilient Agriculture by Laura Lengnick

Image-front-cover_coverbookpage_embedResilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate.

Laura Lengnick. New Society Publishers

ISBN 978-0-86571-774-9

I first heard Laura Lengnick speak at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association conference in 2012. Her solution-focused presentation was “Is Your Farm Climate Ready?”

 I wrote in April about her new book, Resilient Agriculture, which was launched by New Society at the Mother Earth News Fair in Asheville, NC

EJ at New Society has reviewed this book on the New Society blog

Since April I have been reading the book and finding lots of practical tips as well as moral support and help with thinking clearly about what could otherwise be a paralyzing topic: producing food in the face of an increasingly erratic and unpredictable climate. This major transformation is so hard to consider that at times I’ve thought “thank goodness I’m already in my sixties – it’s the younger people who will have to bear the brunt of coping with this mess.” I know that is neither a constructive nor a realistic approach – we each need to make our best effort if our species is to survive the wild changes and unprecedented obstacles ahead.

Temperatures and rainfall outside of our experience are some of the challenges. There are also effects we have barely begun to think about: different bugs and plant diseases; weeds which can grow faster than before; times of desperate water shortage, times of flooding; hurricanes and other strong winds; colder winter and spring temperatures affecting bud burst of fruit and nut trees. But this is far from a doom-and-gloom book. Nor is it a “Blame Industry/Government” tome. It is a very practical and constructive aid to successful sustainable farming.

Fall broccoli last year. Credit Ezra Freeman

Fall broccoli.
Credit Ezra Freeman

In some cases we have already been practicing some of the skills we’ll need: growing a diversity of crops and livestock; learning from our experience (record-keeping!), paying attention to the weather and learning to forecast our local weather; making plans we are prepared to change as conditions change, and having enough workers, seeds and machines to take advantage of smaller windows.

Young blueberry bush in the snow. Credit Bridget Aleshire

Young blueberry bush in the snow.
Credit Bridget Aleshire

In the Southeast, farmers report more frequent summer droughts, more and hotter heat waves, increased intensity of hurricanes, and in general more frequent extreme weather events of all types, more often. This is what we need to be ready for, at the same time as we reduce our own carbon footprints and campaign for national changes. Starting around 1980, the length of the frost-free season increased across the US. In the SE, it became 6 days longer. Ours is the region with the smallest change. On the other hand, the Southeast has seen a 27% increase in the amount of rain and snow dropping down as very heavy precipitation. 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 Resilient Agriculture, Laura Lengnick uses her own extensive knowledge of the science and politics of climate change and her personal experience of growing food, along with her interviews with award-winning sustainable farmers across the US to give us a both a basic framework for approaching the issue and many practical tips.

The framework

Climate change is yet another production risk to assess and prepare for – a big one. The vulnerability of a farm is the degree to which it is susceptible to adverse effects of climate change. It is a combination of exposure, sensitivity and adaptive capacity. Thinking about climate change using this framework helps us focus on the components we have most control over: sensitivity and adaptive capacity.

Exposure and sensitivity acting together decide the potential impact of climate change. Water issues (too much and too little) are the most immediate key exposures (changes in conditions). 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. 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 the conditions (exposures). For example, is the farm in a flood plain in a region that can expect more floods in future? What are the factors limiting the ability of the farm to adapt to climate change? Assessing the farm’s sensitivities provides a good starting point for planning adaptive strategies.

Adaptation is the method most successful in addressing the challenges of climate change at a local level. Adaptive capacity includes our individual capability, knowledge and options, and the operating context (your farm’s unique combination of economic, social and ecological conditions). 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.

Keep clear plans and records

Keep clear plans and records

The interviews encompass farmers of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and livestock. Each production section includes five to ten farms in various parts of the country and ends with a summary of challenges to the adaptive capacity of farmers in that production area. Farmers report on changes they have observed in the past twenty years, whether those changes seem to be long term, and changes they have made to their farming practices as a way to improve their chance of harvesting good yields. Naturally I paid most attention to vegetable growing, and to farmers in the Southeast, to get some ideas on what changes I might wisely introduce.

Some vegetable growers noted the arrival of longer growing seasons, in particular, a longer fall season. Many refer to the need to improve irrigation systems and access to water supplies. Many also see a need to improve soil drainage and soil water-holding capacity. The diversity of vegetable crops many growers produce is a strength in that it spreads the risk. Whatever the weather, something will grow (surely?)

 

Wintry garden beds. Credit Ezra Freeman

Wintry garden beds.
Credit Ezra Freeman

I also found the sections on other types of farming useful, noting that fruit and nut tree growers were looking at diversifying into annual vegetables because of problems with late frosts or insufficient chilling hours that can lead to a complete crop failure in a perennial. Grain farmers had very interesting advice about 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.

Laura Lengnick is one of the main authors of a USDA ARS report Climate Change and Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation. (USDA Technical Bulletin 1935) Feb 2013. She also participates in the Climate Listening Project, a “storytelling platform for conversations on climate change resilience”.  You can learn more about the Climate Listening Project in their introductory video.

Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy writes in his endorsement of the book, “we must keep climate from changing too much – because there’s nothing even the best farmer can do to cope with a truly overheated planet.”