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11.2.4: How Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

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    Farmers have had to adapt to the conditions imposed on them by the climate of their region since the inception of agriculture, but recent human-induced climate change is throwing them some unexpected curve balls. Extreme heat, floods, droughts, hail, and windstorms are some of the direct effects. In addition, there are changes in weed species and distribution, and pest and disease pressures, on top of potentially depleted soils and water stress. Fortunately, there are many practices that farmers can adopt and changes that can be made to our agricultural production system to make the system more resilient to our changing climate.

    Farmers and ranchers are already adapting to our changing climate by changing their selection of crops and the timing of their field operations. Some farmers are applying increasing amounts of pesticides to control increased pest pressure. Many of the practices typically associated with sustainable agriculture can also help increase the resilience of the agricultural system to impact of climate change, such as:

    • diversifying crop rotations
    • integrating livestock with crop production systems
    • improving soil quality
    • minimizing off-farm flows of nutrients and pesticides
    • implementing more efficient irrigation practices

    The video below introduces and discusses several strategies being adopted by New York farmers to adapt to climate change. In addition, the fact sheet from Cornell University's Cooperative Extension about Farming Success in an Uncertain Climate produced by Cornell University's Cooperative Extension outlines solutions to challenges associated with floods, droughts, heat stress, insect invasions, and superweeds. Also, p. 35, Box 8 in Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate outlines some existing technologies that can be a starting point for adapting to climate change.

    Learning Checkpoint: How can farmers adapt to climate change?

    • Watch 15 min video by Cornell University about Agriculture and Adaptation about how New York farmers are adapting to climate change.
    • Read the fact sheet from Cornell University's Cooperative Extension about Farming Success in an Uncertain Climate
    • Read p. 35, Box 8 in Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate
    • Answer the questions below

    Video: Climate Smart Farming Story: Adaptation and Agriculture (15:09)

    Click for a transcript of the Adaptation and Agriculture video.

    Dale Stein. Stein Farms, Le Roy, NY: The weather is definitely becoming more erratic and more extreme than what it had been in the past. Paul King, Six Mile Creek Vineyard, Ithaca, NY: I have that tendency, as others do that have lived a long time in the same place, to say, “Well the winters aren't as cold, we're not getting as much snow.” Rod Farrow, Lamont Fruit Farm, Waterport, NY: Certainly it's been a surprise over the last few years, how much earlier the seasons have become in general. Jessica Clark, Assistant Farm Manager, Poughkeepsie Farm Project: And I would say that it actually does seem like the season gets hotter faster. David Wolfe, Professor of Horticulture, Cornell University: We're here at one of Cornell's apple orchard research sites. New York is well known for the quality of its apples. We’re usually second or third in the US in apple production. And we got there by, farmers from over many years, really working with Cornell researchers to come up with best management practices. But of course, now we're facing, like farmers everywhere, new challenges, challenges associated with climate change. For example, I never expected when I got into this climate change research realm back in the 1990's, that one of the most important things that would come up with regards to the fruit crop growers is actually cold and frost damage in a warming world. The reason for that is that these plants can sometimes be tricked into blooming earlier with a warming winter. And we had known from looking at historical records that the apples were blooming a few days earlier than they used to. But in 2012 there was a real record breaker. The apples in the state bloomed about four weeks earlier than normal, never, never observed before. And of course, this put them into a really long period of frost risk. And sure enough, we lost close to half the crop in much of the state, millions of dollars of damage. So to deal with this sort of thing, we have to think about things like frost risk warning systems for farmers. Farmers may have to consider misting systems or wind machines for frost protection. And our apple breeders may have to think about coming up with genetic types that don't jump the gun in terms of early bloom in warm winters. So the experience of adapting to climate change may be different for each farm. But nevertheless, many of the state's leading agricultural industries, which include dairy, grapes, apples, and fresh market produce, all face new challenges, new risks, and new opportunities. When it comes to climate change and adaptation, farmers across New York all have a story to tell. Dale Stein. Stein Farms, Le Roy, New York: I'm Dale Stein, senior partner at Stein Farms in Le Roy. We milk 850 cows, work almost 3,000 acres of land. Today we've had very heavy rain all morning, they got flood watches up all over. We've seen years where a drought, where on the gravel ground you get almost no yield. We actually had two years in a row, 2011 and 2012 were too dry here, so all our forages were lower production. We feed 75 ton of feed a day, so about 4 tractor-trailer loads of feed a day. We ended up, by the end of 2012, running out of our surplus forage. We used all that up. We end up on those years buying more grain, which increases our cost of production and lowers your profit down. But we're harvesting 1500 to 2000 ton of Triticale every May, that if I didn't have, that's extra on the same ground. If I didn't have that, we would have been in a lot worse place than we were without it. Bill Verbeten, Cornell Extension Specialist: The forage inventory shortages that we've had from extreme weather conditions in recent years, is really just a sign of things to come unfortunately. Farmers have to deal with a change in climate each and every day. And so in Extension, we really try to help farmers manage their risk. And growing a triticale forage crop, or another small grain for forage, can really give another opportunity to protect their resources over the winter, because they're more vulnerable to extreme precipitation events and losing that soil. We can protect the soil. Notice the fibrous root system. This is why this crop can hold soil. Just see how much soil, even in this couple inches of roots, that this is holding onto. Dale Stein. Stein Farms, Le Roy, New York: My standpoint, from what I've seen on this farm, Triticale works very well for us and the palatability is phenomenal, the cow's love it Bill Verbeten, Cornell Extension Specialist: So this is an awesome combination of a profitable crop that protects the environment. Dale: Baffles me why more farmers aren't using Triticale, just baffles me. Paul King, Six Mile Creek Vinyard, Ithaca, New York: I'm Paul King. I do most of the vineyard management, and most of the winemaking, and all of the distilling, here at Six Mile Creek Vineyard, and I've been here for almost 25 years. If we talk about climate change, longer growing season and a little hotter weather will ripen the fruit more dependably. There are some varieties, and I can give you two or three examples. Pinot Noir is a little fussy, Merlot for sure, Cabernet Sauvignon, and to a lesser degree, Chardonnay. I think these are varieties that will benefit. The best management option for any individual vineyard to deal with increasingly varying weather, if we talk about climate change, would be to think carefully about the varieties that they're growing. That's really the biggest management strategy, because everything else you're doing is then a little bit of, sort of a stopgap. Wind turbines help in only very specific weather conditions, where very calm conditions are set up and there's a deep gradient between the temperatures at the surface and just a few hundred feet in the air, and mixing up that layer can help a lot. But they're pretty specific weather conditions and it's a pretty costly investment. You need to grow the varieties that you can grow well, and that's what you need to do. That is especially true at Six Mile Creek, but it's also true for any of the other vineyards. Last winter was a particularly cold one and its really interesting. I think the minimum low temperature in Ithaca is still probably minus 23 degrees Fahrenheit, or so. We didn't really approach that, but what we did see here were lots of excursions to minus 14, minus 15, minus 16 degrees and that is a very, very critical temperature. You're going to get significant blood loss right around that threshold. What is that going to have on the quality and quantity of wine grapes that are grown in region? And certainly at Six Mile Creek Vineyard, we have lost most of the riesling, the fruit that we had here, as compared with our seyval, a hybrid, where we have virtually a full crop. There is a lack of name recognition of some of these hybrids. Seyval Blanc, that sounds a lot like Sauvignon Blanc, but but well is it a Sauvignon Blanc? And well it's not a Sauvignon Blanc, it's a completely different variety. It's my personal favorite. I get six ton per acre, even here. It's disease resistant. It's one of the first great varieties to ripen. It's a beautiful grape variety, it's just relatively unknown. But I think the people that I know that most enjoy wine, really like trying new wines. So there's a huge, huge outlet out there for exploring some of the new hybrids, they're great varieties. It's one of the Finger Lakes fortes. In the long run that's gonna serve to help us. Rod Farrow, Lamont Fruit Farm, Waterport, NY: I'm Rod Pharaoh, one of the owners and operators of Lamont Fruit Farm in Waterport, New York. We operate about 500 acres of apples, grow all kinds of varieties, about 29 different ones. The major varieties would be Empire Honeycrisp, Gala, Fugis, SweeTangos. We've certainly moved our bloom time forward, probably at least five to seven days, and then some years a lot more than that. How much of this we can attribute to climate change is still a little bit debatable to me personally, but there's certainly a sense that things are changing here, and that the climate is getting a little more unpredictable. And the risk of early season and early bloom seems to be greater and greater every year. The chances of a warm spell in March, an extended warm spell, seem to much larger now than they were ten years ago. I would say, in general, our farm’s definitely vulnerable to extreme weather events. It always has been. We're at the mercy of Mother Nature no matter what we do. The question is, has the frequency increased and the risk? Certainly I’d say there have been a lot of extreme instances of weather over the last thirty plus years here. We've had a number of very large hail storms, but certainly the frequency of that has been greater since 1998. One of the things that drives what you do in terms of risk management is the profitability of your business. And a profitable business can afford to do things to mitigate risk, whether that be invest in frost machines or try to choose better orchard sites, or add overhead cooling or overhead irrigation, frost protection. Through the 2000s the orchard business has generally been pretty healthy. So I certainly see an uptick in an investment in risk management. So anywhere we have reasonable sites, or good orchard sites, we've survived any frost that we've ever had, including 2012. And we look at it as a company strategy that investing in the highest possible fruit sites or orchard sites, has just as big, if not greater, economic impact then trying to mitigate a site that's going to be at risk in years when it's cold. Certainly multi-peril insurance can help in years of distinct disaster and actually make years that could be very, very bad for you, actually years that you could not necessarily thrive in, but you can at least survive through. So we're big believers in that. The strategies that are being used at the moment to lower your risk are definitely trying to try to preserve the economic viability of fruit farms and businesses in general in western New York. Not all climate change is negative. So increasing the number of heat units per season has a positive impact on what we can do for fruit size, potential yield, and return bloom tree health. So there's always gains and balances with anything. We certainly have a little bit higher risk but we also possibly have a slightly higher potential in terms of yield and value. Jessica Clark, Assistant Farm Manager, Poughkeepsie Farm Project: My name is Jessica Clark. I'm the assistant farm manager at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. And the Poughkeepsie Farm Project is a nonprofit that has an educational mission and also a working CSA farm. We are not certified organic, but we do try to use organic practices. We notice climate change in terms of the disease susceptibility of our plants, and I've seen definitely an increase in the number of different diseases and pests that can affect us here in the Northeast. Certainly when we have very extreme weather events, and certainly when we have sort of these very strange, you know, very, either early summer, very late summers or very, very, late falls, so that it doesn't actually get to freezing until February. You know I'm sure that that extends how strong the disease pressure can be the next year, and the pest pressure. And heat stress actually can be a big factor for a lot of our Brassicas. And in general that's something you deal with as a farmer. And the changing of the seasons, spring to summer, brassicas are always going to be a challenge, but they're even more of a challenge. And they're a good indicator in terms of crops, because they do not like a lot of variability in their whether. They pretty much like the weather to always be, you know, relatively mild, not too wet, not too dry, and pretty much the same temperature all the time and that’s really just not what you get here. So we're already dealing with a change in climate, you know, what was it two years ago when we would have 80-degree weather in early March, and then go freezing in April. Crazy things can happen in a season. It's almost like predicting for unpredictability. Having that kind of reinforces the fact that we, you know, should have diversified market areas and also diversified crops. You don't have to be as diversified as the CSA because certainly that can be a little bit overboard in some areas, but certainly to rely on one crop is, you know, like playing a game of dice, like sometimes it's just not going to come up your turn. And if, certainly, if you don't have crop insurance, and even if you do have crop insurance, you know, it can be a very risky, you know, game to play. I know people who are in the orchard business in Ulster County and even their kind of going more into agro-tourism, they're going more into different crops, different specialty crops, just to have something on the side that they can rely on. You know it kind of makes one, as a farmer, more bold, to say like, “oh well, we'll just see how early we can get tomatoes if it's going to be warmer earlier”, or “we'll see how late we can have crops, you know, into the fall”. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work, but you never know and probably something else is going to fail in the meantime. I personally like to also make sure that our organic matter is high in our soils to begin with, so that it has that hummus and organic matter that's capable of holding water, as well as, as much as possible, keeping our soil covered in a cover crop, when we can. And then, even when we're tilling in that cover crop, to try and choose moments where we're not losing too much soil. Certainly we're thinking about carbon sequestration, and being able to lock in a lot of that carbon into our soil. It’s partially because it's good for the earth and partially because it's good for our plants to have that much, you know, to have a high carbon soil. You know, you come into the idea of sustainable farming knowing that you're trying to not, you know, ruin the planet and trying to, you know, make sure that you're not, um yeah, you're not messing things up to bad. David Wolfe, Professor of Horticulture, Cornell University: Well these are just some of the experiences and challenges that farmers throughout the Northeast are dealing with in adapting to climate change. But we have advantages in this region too, such as being relatively water rich. And with a longer growing season, this could open up new opportunities for new markets and new crops. Here at Cornell and Cornell's Institute of Climate Change in Agriculture, we are poised and ready to take on climate change challenges and work with our grower partners, stay one step ahead of the curve, and take advantage of any opportunities that might come our way.

    Check Your Understanding (short answers)

    1) How can frost damage increase with climate change, even if temperatures are overall warming?

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    Answer: If temperatures overall warm, some crops will bud earlier in the year as the winter warms making them more susceptible to frost damage in the event of a late frost. For example, in 2012 in the state of New York, apples bloomed four weeks earlier and close to half of the state's apple crop was lost to frost damage.

    2) What are some ways that the risk of frost damage can be reduced in a warming climate?

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    Answer: Frost risk warning systems, misting systems, wind machines, and breeding varieties of crops that don't bloom too early in warming winters.

    3) Why is triticale a beneficial forage crop for farmers to grow?

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    Answer: Extreme weather conditions, such as floods and droughts, can affect the harvest of forage crops. Triticale has a fibrous root system, so it can hold soil. It's a profitable crop that cows love and is more resilient to extreme weather conditions.

    4) What is an important management strategy that farmers can use in growing grapes to work with a changing climate?

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    Answer: Think carefully about the varieties that they are growing, to make sure that they are appropriate for the climate in their region and are resilient to potential future climate changes. For example, some varieties are more cold hardy and other are more heat tolerant. Wind turbines help when the surface temperatures are very cold and there's a steep gradient, and can help prevent frost damage, but they are expensive.

    5) What climate change impacts are the farmers in the video dealing with?

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    Answer: As our global climate changes growing seasons become hotter and some crops are susceptible to heat stress. Warm spells occur early provoking earlier bloom leaving crops vulnerable to frost risks. The frequency of extreme weather incidents has increased (e.g., floods, droughts, hail storms). Increase in the number of diseases and pests. Less predictability in length of growing season, temperature and precipitation.

    6) What strategies are implemented by the farmers in the video to manage their farms in a changing climate?

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    Answer: Wind machines, overhead irrigation, choosing plant varieties appropriately, and siting orchards in appropriate locations. Diversified markets and diversification in crops grown increase resilience. Crop insurance decreases risk. Increase organic matter in soil and use cover crops to increase the water-holding capacity of soils and to protect soils.


    • Hatfield, J., G. Takle, R. Grotjahn, P. Holden, R. C. Izaurralde, T. Mader, E. Marshall, and D. Liverman, 2014: Ch. 6: Agriculture. Climate Change Impacts in the United States: The Third National Climate Assessment, J. M. Melillo, Terese (T.C.) Richmond, and G. W. Yohe, Eds., U.S. Global Change Research Program, 150-174. doi:10.7930/J02Z13FR. On the Web:
    • Lengnick, L. 2015. Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, New Society Publishers.

    This page titled 11.2.4: How Farmers Adapt to Climate Change is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Karsten & Steven Vanek (John A. Dutton: e-Education Institute) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.