Northeast Farmers Urged to Plan Ahead for Climate Change

4/27/2013 7:00 AM
By Maegan Crandall Central N.Y. Correspondent

CORTLAND, N.Y. — While the impact of climate change on a day-to-day basis may seem elusive for most people, experts who work with the land and are tied to the natural world — such as scientists and farmers — can more easily grasp the big picture.

“We intuitively know that an increase in variability will stress our environment and our ability to grow and produce,” said Dave Eichorn, meteorologist and instructor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

As part of a weekend-long regional conference on climate change, Sustainable Cortland invited community members and farmers to explore the variability of climate change. Discussions centered around predicted weather changes, strategies for dealing with these projected weather impacts, and ideas on how to help farming survive locally.

“Climate change is real and is in large part due to human activities. It’s a global problem rather than a regional problem and our predictions are what our children and grandchildren might experience in the future,” said Larry Klotz, an instructor at SUNY Cortland.

For example, statistics illustrate that by the 2080s crop production decline in New York associated with heat stress is projected to increase six-fold compared to current heat stress.

“If you put a dollar sign on that, the economic losses associated with increase in heat stress range from $37 to $66 per cow per year. This is just based on short term heat stress and it doesn’t even consider long term heat stress in these calculations,” Klotz said.

Temperature is not the only consideration. Annual precipitation changes in New York state will occur as well, with projections of a 5 percent increase in total precipitation by 2020. By the 2050s, it increases to 10 percent, and by the 2080s, 15 percent, he said.

David Wolfe, an instructor at Cornell University, said the effects of future climate change on agriculture will manifest in a variety of variable and unpredictable scenarios, such as warmer winters, longer growing seasons, shifting hardiness zones, heat stress, new pests and diseases, and increased flooding and drought. All of these possibilities will require thoughtful planning and adjustment.

“The assumption that our past historical climate can be used for decision-making is really no longer valid. The generations of farmers before us could all rely on what the historical climate data told them, we can’t do that,” he said. “This is really the first generation of farmers to face this predicament and so really all of us — ag scientists, NGOs, government agencies and farmers — need to be developing new approaches to environmental monitoring so that we can keep ahead of what is changing out there.”

Because the variability of climate change is unpredictable, adapting is important and Wolfe suggested implementing farm-level adjustments that build resilience. Planting new varieties and crops, diversifying, developing new strategies for new pests, improving soil resilience, expanding and improving new irrigation and drainage systems, protecting fruit crops from frost, and improving the cooling capacity of livestock facilities will all make good business sense, he said.

“We also need to be prepared to take advantage of new market opportunities that might develop, and make use of energy policy incentive programs that might come up — such as emerging carbon markets,” Wolfe said.

Further, Wolfe said farmers need to be aware of unintended consequences of adaptation, such as increased chemical loads to waterways, and undesirable land use change and degradation.

“It’s important to protect national interests that involve the ag economy, food prices and food security,” he said.

Finally, Wolfe suggested that financial assistance for adaptation investments will become increasingly important, in addition to disaster risk management and better crop insurance programs.

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