Warmer winters, superstorms, floods, droughts, new pests and diseases… If you’ve experienced any of these issues on your farm in the last 10 years, you may have thought it was an isolated incident, a hazard of farming in your particular environment on your specific piece of land. That may be true. However, if you connect with other growers in other areas around the country and the globe, you will probably hear similar stories. This web of “isolated incidents” has been happening so much more frequently in the last several years, and with such greater intensity, that scientists feel confident saying the incidents are connected, and are the result of a single global event: the overall rise in temperature. We now know this as “climate change.”

A word about scientists…

Scientists are cautious by nature. If you read scientific literature, you find words like “suggests,” and “likely,” and “probable.” Scientists are hesitant to make big pronouncements about anything. Instead, they will research more, explore more and wait for more evidence to pile up before making a definitive statement. Case in point: It took scientists decades to announce the trend of global warming. Did this happen in the last few years? No. It happened in 1988, when NASA climate scientist Dr. James Hansen testified to US Congress that the earth’s atmosphere was warming. He wasn’t postulating. He was reporting proven scientific fact. In the quarter century since that meeting, Hansen’s warnings came true. Yet people are still debating whether climate change is real. It took decades of mounting evidence for researchers to say, “Yes. This doesn’t seem to be happening. This is happening.”

These processes link the atmosphere with other components of the Earth system, including the oceans, land, and terrestrial and marine plants and animals. Image by CCSP Strategic Plan

ILLUSTRATED BY P. REKACEWICZ

What does this mean for you?

I like to think of climate change as an illness. There are symptoms (deluges, droughts, etc….), and there is the root cause (increased carbon released into the atmosphere.) As with any illness, if you focus only on treating the symptom, you may find temporary relief, but you are unlikely to cure the disease. You and I need to address the cause. Based on where you are and where I am, and your profession (farmer) and my profession (writer), we will utilize different treatments. However, we’re all faced with the same disease, and we all have the power to treat the cause.

What if we don’t act?

According to a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, global food demand will double by midcentury; in particular, the demand for animal products will rise rapidly. Contrary to what you may be thinking about supply and demand, this is not good news, as animal products require even more land and crop resources. I have interviewed numerous agricultural researchers on the topic of climate change and farming. While some are optimistic about the possibilities for growers and ag researchers to find the right mix of treatments, prophylactics and creative solutions, they all said the same thing: In the next 35 years, farmers will need to feed a global population that is expected to grow from 7.13 billion (our current population) to at least 9.5 billion, according to the United Nations. In a healthy climate, this wouldn’t be so daunting. However, we are not living in a healthy climate. We have issues with water pollution, air pollution and soil degradation. Scientists report expanding ranges of insects, diseases and weeds. If we make no changes, extreme weather events are predicted to increase dramatically. You know better than I that if you lose your crop to an unexpected hail storm, it’s hard to feed the people you normally feed, never mind to produce food for even more people.

How can I help?

I hope to support you with the information you need to thrive during what promises to be some very challenging times.

In coming months, this column will address a variety of climate change-related topics, and explore how they are related to growing food. Through this column, you’ll meet climatologists, soil scientists, experienced farmers, geneticists, and other researchers and practitioners. These are people working to find the most effective ways to get at the root cause of climate change, without forcing you to sacrifice your way of life completely. As USDA researcher Jerry Hatfield said, “It’s not just an esoteric exercise we’re working on in the science community. We really do have the producer in mind to help them grow crops effectively.”

We’ll learn why some agricultural researchers are eating the words of their forebears, as they realize the information they delivered to farmers in the last century actually contributed to climate change. We’ll learn about the importance of biodiversity and what that means in an agricultural setting. We’ll learn about changing growing regions, irrigation strategies, soil health, rising sea levels, new cultivars that may thrive in your changing climate, techniques for growing in unpredictable weather, and how to use your influence at the local, state and national level to ensure the policies enacted are the most sound and logical under the circumstances. Perhaps most important, we’ll learn how shifting your farming practices can actually combat global warming.

Do you have specific concerns or questions related to your operation? Send them to me at Rebekah.Fraser@gmail.com. Weathering climate change is something we can only do together.