New study examines adaptation needs for agriculture and forestry

Apr 5, 2013

A group made up of a broad collection of farmers, scientists and agriculturalists is emphasizing climate adaptation strategies for agriculture and forestry in a new report being released this week.

Kansas farmer and rancher Steve Irsik, a member of the 25x’25 adaptation committee, said he believes he began to see subtle changes in the weather about a decade ago when it began to get drier where he lives in southwest Kansas. Once-rare events are expected to become more common because of more volatile weather patterns as global temperatures rise. Farmers, ranchers and foresters will face more pressures from higher temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and likely droughts that are longer and more frequent.

Threats will increase from crop diseases, pests and weeds as well. The risks sparked the 25x’25 Alliance to look at priorities not only for agriculture to cope with climate change, but also potentially thrive.

The 25x’25 report was grounded by emphasizing the need to maintain agricultural profitability, productivity, stewardship and self-determination for farmers. The report highlights five areas where farmers and policymakers could work on climate adaptation strategies: research, production systems and practices, risk management, decision-making tools and outreach.

“Some people get hung up on what’s causing it. Let’s get over that. Let’s figure out what it is we’re going to be dealing with and figure out better ways to deal with it,” said Ohio farmer Fred Yoder, who chaired the 25x’25 adaptation group. “It was important to look at what tools are in the toolbox already. Basically, our adaptation paper is to help prove to the world we can still produce 25 percent of our fuel needs through renewable sources by 2025. If climate change is part of that, let’s deal with it and let’s move on.”

The research section contains a broad array of recommendations for investing more public and private spending into topics such as creating more accurate weather forecasting to better inform producers about weather scenarios over broader timescales that could help cropping decisions. Better measurements on the probability of extreme weather would help for long-term decisions.

“The paper points out we have bigger weather events now,” Yoder said. “It seems like we have bigger droughts, bigger rain events, bigger disasters. Those are probably the biggest things I worry about farming. So there are things you need to do to make sure you can keep farming, like keeping ground cover on the surface to protect the soil.”

Largely, more work is needed in various aspects of agriculture to make production more efficient through pest management, biotechnology, machinery or nutrient and water usage. More research is needed into crop-management biotech traits for weeds and other pests. Studies are needed on the effects of changing nighttime temperatures and on how warmer winters could affect some fruits and vegetables that need to go through a season of cooler temperatures.

Better research is needed on building organic matter and improving water efficiency. Further, more studies are needed into areas such as perennial crops. Post-harvest studies are needed to examine how temperature changes can damage stored feed, possibly producing more aflatoxins. New measures may be needed to avoid storage losses.

More versatile equipment may be needed to help farmers adjust to narrowing planting windows to help farmers plant faster. Research could find ways to make livestock facilities more efficient, as well as help those facilities incorporate bioenergy into their operations.

Irsik said changes in the weather in southwest Kansas have shifted planting dates for crops such as winter wheat.

“Sept. 10 used to be the key date for planting winter wheat. If you plant around Sept. 10 now, it will be too early,” Irsik said. “You will get too much top growth, so the wheat would use too much early moisture and risk being killed in the winter. Planting dates for winter wheat have shifted back to late September and early October.”

Yoder also noted that farmers seem to be dealing with much smaller planting windows. “When I was growing up, we used to plant for two months, in May and all the way through June. Today, if you don’t hit your window in a week to 10 days, you are missing some big dollars.”

25x’25 focuses heavily on improving the soil profile through an array of better conservation practices, much like USDA is now stressing with its soil-health initiative. Among the top priorities are efforts to increase the soil’s water-holding capacity and improving soil organic matter. The group also encourages cover crops to prevent soil erosion and increase organic matter. Buffer strips to avoid erosion and water runoff also are highlighted.

Increasingly, adaptation also will come from new technology. Today, farmers can plant round-the-clock with tools such as global positioning and auto-steer. Yoder said he remembers times in the past planting after dark and not liking the results the next day. “But today you can do that with pretty good confidence,” he said.

For various reasons, water hydrology is a growing problem. New drainage networks and designs for water filtration should be considered as well as lengthening crop rotations to break up cycles in weeds and pests. Climate change and drier cycles also will demand better ways to save water in irrigation practices. That may include recycling water or installing drip systems to better target when and where water is needed.

Irsik worries about the impact the changing climate will have on irrigation. Water recharge in the southern Great Plains just doesn’t begin to compete with the volumes being pumped out of the Ogallala Aquifer. Irsik, who once served as chairman of the Kansas Water Authority, said sustainability of the aquifer in western Kansas could eventually require tight restrictions or possibly even shutting off a high percentage of the groundwater irrigation going on now. Much the same could be said for Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.

“The issue is what do you want this country to look like?” Irsik said. “What do you want Kansas and west Texas to look like in 30 years? At the rate we are going—and all of this economic development that comes from irrigation— it’s all going away. A lot of it would.”

One of the biggest challenges in trying to encourage crop diversification is the lack of markets for products such as switchgrass, which is a quality crop for areas such as buffer strips. Yet, there needs to be either local biofuel or biomass opportunities for switchgrass. There has been experimental production by some farmers to pelletize switchgrass and sell it for cofiring electric power plants.

But that has only been done on a limited scale. That demands that policymakers continue creating incentives to help these markets or industries to grow. Often, states where farmers are selling biomass have renewable energy incentives.

Risk management will become more critical as weather volatility grows. Thus, 25x’25 agrees with most farm organizations that a robust cropinsurance program is needed, including expanding coverage for a larger number of livestock farmers, specialty-crop producers or organic agriculture. Incentives are needed to offer insurance to farmers who are making cropping changes in their region even if there is not historical yield data. Also, more work should be considered in ways that crop insurance can help spur adaptation strategies. 25x’25 cites how current RMA policies could put a producer’s crop insurance eligibility at risk if cover crops grow past a certain date, an issue USDA is trying to address.

“Such issues should be identified and addressed to harmonize the system with effective adaptation options,” the 25x’25 report states.

Disaster programs should be maintained. But rather than just paying for revenue losses, those programs also should couple disaster relief with assistance to apply adaptation practices. That could be done by tying disaster funds with cost shares from programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or the Conservation Stewardship Program.

Andrew Walmsley, a lobbyist for the American Farm Bureau Federation (Farm Bureau), said the group continues to oppose carbon taxes or other federal policies Farm Bureau believes would do more to hinder the economy than actually address climate change. Still, Farm Bureau supports the work done in the 25x’25 report.

“But one thing we can be for are the things in that document as far as commonsense proposals we should be doing anyway,” Walmsley said. “That’s why I think we see value in that report and hopefully working with 25x’25 and whoever else is interested in moving forward on adaptation ideas.”

Fred Ackerman, a former researcher at Tufts University, co-authored a report released last month looking at the risks to American agriculture from climate change.

Ackerman makes the point that because of the importance of the food supply, the country can’t afford not to act.

“The problem I have always come back to is, where are ordinary Americans going to feel this?” Ackerman said. “When you are talking about polar icecaps and coral reefs, it all seems exotic and far away. It seems to me with agriculture and what’s going to happen to food in this country is the big, immediate impact as far as climate change goes.”

Ernie Shea, project coordinator for 25x’25, said the body of work represents a lot of deep thinking and highlights a lot of practical steps agriculture can take to respond to increasing weather volatility. The goal now is to take the recommendations and get them out to as many people in agriculture as possible.

“I think there is an emerging recognition that is coming through loud and clear now,” Shea said. “There may be disagreements on the cause of climate change, but climate change is occurring and it is creating some significant challenges for farmers, ranchers and foresters.” — Chris Clayton, DTN