Published: December 2, 2016
Farming is an inherently risky business. On top of daily weather events, market fluctuations, land access, taxes, and expenses, the stress of climate change exacerbates these problems and serves to make agriculture even less predictable. Farmers and ranchers all over the United States are already experiencing the effects of climate change and severe weather events, and this variability is only expected to increase in the years ahead.
So this begs the question– what can farmers do to maintain their livelihoods and America’s food supply in the face of a rapidly changing climate?
In response to these pressing concerns, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a new report to provide farmers with preparation strategies, coping mechanisms, and recovery actions to acclimate to climate change impacts. It will ultimately serve as a key resource for educators and advisors as well as farmers and ranchers. The report, titled Adaptation Resources for Agriculture: Responding to Climate Variability and Change in the Midwest and Northeast, was published by USDA’s Climate Hubs for the Midwest, Northeast, and Northern Forests.
In 2014, USDA created the National Climate Hubs program to collect data, scientific studies, and climate projections to gauge the effects of climate change on the environment. USDA maintains seven hubs–Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Northern Plains, Southern Plains, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast–and three sub-hubs–Caribbean, Northern Forests, and California. According to USDA, “the hubs are intended to help maintain and strengthen agricultural production, natural resource management, and rural economic development under increasing climate variability by providing guidance on technologies and risk management practices at regional and local scales.”
For this report, the regional climate hubs assembled authors from different USDA programs, including theAgricultural Research Service (ARS), the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Forest Service, in addition to conservationists and climate scientists.
The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our members believe that by giving farmers the tools they need to invest in their soil and actively adapt to and mitigate climate change, we can develop effective strategies that work for farmers, the environment, and the economy. The report published this week provides an important overview of key adaptation and mitigation strategies to achieve that goal, and below we highlight key findings from the report.
Climate Change is Already Affecting Northeastern and Midwestern Farmers
All across the country, climate change means warmer temperatures for longer periods of time, in addition to more frequent and stronger weather events. As the report points out, the Northeast and the Midwest are experiencing more rainfall than ever before, with the Northeast’s precipitation having increased by 70 percent since the mid 20th century.
The report digs into the climate change-fueled problems farmers are already facing. Extreme weather events, heightened precipitation levels, flooding, and warmer temperatures all have the potential to directly damage crops, soil health, and critical farm infrastructure. Warmer temperatures and resulting droughts can degrade soil moisture content, and ultimately lead to lower yields and poor quality outputs.
The report also highlights the impacts of increased pests pressures and diseases. Changing climate patterns allow invasive species to grow and outcompete fields of crops. And with milder and shortened winters, both destructive insects and pathogens are set to become stronger and to cover a larger ground, impacting crop and livestock production across the country.
As we have previously reported, the impacts of climate change will cost taxpayers billions of dollars, but our nation’s farmers and ranchers have an enormous opportunity to mitigate these effects through conservation practices that sequester carbon, improve soil health, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, farmers will have to rapidly respond to the increased pressures from a changing climate, and the report highlights the key linkage between these two strategies.
The Linkage Between Adaptation and Mitigation
The report points out that climate change adaptation – a form of increasing resilience by reducing the impacts of these weather events– and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation – an action that actively seeks to reduce noxious carbon and other GHG emissions to reduce harm to the environment – are separate concepts. However, the actions needed to address these two goals can often be one and the same. For example, using cover crops helps retain soil moisture content and prevent erosion (an adaptation strategy) while also increasing the soil’s carbon sequestration (a mitigation strategy).
Adaptation can require immediate responses, based up on daily weather events, in addition to planning months or years ahead to prepare for ever-evolving patterns and obstacles. Both are equally important to consider and can often work in tandem such that “short-term initiatives can inform longer term strategy through a ‘learn by doing’ approach,” as noted in the report.
When presented with constant fluctuations both daily and annually, it is evident that farmers will not be able to continue their practices under the status quo. The report presents two adaptation options: maintain but adjust current practices or change over more completely to a sustainable agriculture approach.