Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change

4/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

WASHINGTON — Believe it or not, farmers are adapting to climate change — even if they do not realize it. Farmers look at the weather, study the past couple of growing seasons and the markets, and then plan for the next growing season.

“Farmers get pretty skittish when you talk about climate change,” said Roger Yoder from 25x’25, a group looking to reduce U.S. consumption of fossil fuels.

However, reframe the discussion to what’s happening with the weather, he said, and farmers are ready to talk.

Yoder spoke Monday as part of a panel discussion at the annual meeting of the North American Agricultural Journalists in Washington.

Yoder is a corn farmer from Ohio and past president for the National Corn Growers Association.

Bill Hohenstein from the USDA Climate Change Program Office said climate change is here. USDA monitoring stations show a steady climb in carbon dioxide levels. More than 10 of the hottest years on record have happened in the past 15 years.

“And here’s the scary news, it looks like it’s going to accelerate even faster,” he said of the temperature climb.

Why does it matter? It will change what farmers will be able to successfully grow and create new sets of challenges. Also, Hohenstein said the faster the temperature rises, the harder it will be for farmers to adapt.

He said the focus of the department is “what do we do about it and prepare our farmers and stakeholders for it.”

Ernie Shea, the 25x’25 coordinator, said his organization has been “paying close attention to what the science community is telling us,” regarding climate change.

“Climate change has the great potential to cause great disruption in agriculture,” Shea said. “At the end of the day, sustaining production without depleting natural resources will become increasingly difficult.”

USDA released a report in February called Climate Change and Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation. The report explores the potential for adaptive practices to reduce the negative effects of climate change and to potentially take advantage of new opp ortunities in the forestry and agriculture sectors.

The 25x’25 adaptation work group released a report at the beginning of April called Agriculture and Forestry in a Changing Climate: Adaptation Recommendations.

Some of the changes Hohenstein talked about include the western U.S. becoming drier and the east wetter. In addition to warmer temperatures, he said there would be more extreme weather.

For crops, there could be more challenges — water stress, frost for winter crops and heat stress during pollination.

Pastures could have more challenges, he said, because there is “a lot less work in pasture technology compared to corn.”

Pests could have a larger territory and higher populations. Weeds, he said, are an interesting story, because in higher carbon dioxide environments, they become more resilient to herbicides.

Livestock farmers will have to work to improve animal comfort in warmer temperatures.

“Whether they talk about climate change or not, farmers are responding,” Hohenstein said.

Yoder said water will be a challenge for farmers in the future.

“We are going to have to be more efficient with how we use water,” he said.

Water or the lack of it is going to be the thing that will “make or break agriculture,” he said.

And farmers will continue to adapt to economic incentives.

“Do we farm the same ways we did 20 years ago?” Hohenstein asked.

Yoder said farmers have evolved their operations, installing conservation practices and changing production practices to improve crop yield and for risk management.

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