Sunday, January 24, 2016

Ag Society Forum: Farmers Must Learn to Deal With Changing Climate

From Empire Farm & Dairy magazine:


SALINA — Oh, the weather it is a changin.’

And oh, how the farmers have to change their operations to deal with it.

Climate change and how it affects agriculture in New York state was the focus of the 184th forum of the New York State Agricultural Society held Jan. 7 at the Holiday Inn in suburban Syracuse.

The day-long forum included talks by a meteorologist and director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University, a panel discussion by New York farmers on how they deal with changes in the weather and a talk by the administrator of the federal Farm Service Agency.

All agreed weather patterns in New York have changed.

Art DeGaetano, a meteorologist, a professor in the department of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell and director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center, said data shows “through time, something has changed.”

From about 1980 through today, temperatures on average have been much warmer than normal in the winter.

He said data shows there have been fewer times when the temperatures dropped below zero, summer temperatures are warmer than normal, there are more frost-free seasons and, while annual average amounts of precipitation have stayed about the same (41 inches), there have been more extremes of when areas see two inches or more of rain in a day.

“We’re still seeing 41 inches of rain, but it’s coming in 10 days instead of in a longer period of time. 
It’s clearly a different impact,” DeGaetano said.

So what can farmers do to deal with changes in the weather?

Peter Martens, a grain and crop farmer in Dresden, Yates County, and Wendy Burkhart-Spiegel, an organic vegetable farmer in Madison in Madison County, both do much more irrigation and drainage work on their farms than in the past. Irrigation deals with times when there isn’t enough rain, and drainage helps the farms get rid of water from those extreme deluges.

Martens also increased his strip cropping from zero in 2000 to 70 percent of his crops now being grown this way. This helps alleviate the erosion of soil by creating natural dams for water when it rains.

Martens also has had to rethink the type of crops he is growing now that the weather is different. Instead of planting windbreaks that simply act as windbreaks, he is considering planting fruit or nut trees that can act as windbreaks and can be sold “to turn a profit.”

He also is working with nearby dairy farmers by taking some of the crops he grew as weather buffers (straw and beans) and sells them to the dairies for feed.

“When the weather takes away an opportunity, reach out to a neighbor for another opportunity,” he said.

Burkhart-Spiegel said the very first year she and her husband operated Common Thread Community Farm and CSA in 2013, it rained so much in June they thought they’d never get their crops in.
“Six weeks of rain when we’re trying to get our crops in and cultivated,” she said.

So they also put in drainage. Irrigation is used when the rain gods take a vacation.

They use raised beds for some of the vegetables and put in hoop houses and temporary caterpillar houses for raising items like tomatoes.

“I remember when we could plant all our tomatoes outside and get all the tomatoes we needed,” she said. “Now we don’t plant any tomatoes outside.”

The weather changes also have led to more pests, so Burkhart-Spiegel has turned to organic pesticides, uses row covers and even black plastic and landscape fabric when growing some vegetables.

Val Dolcini, the Farm Service Agency administrator, manages offices in “every rural county in the United States in serving America’s farmers and ranchers, providing them with credit, farm and conservation programs and disaster assistance.”

He admits the ever-changing climate makes his job challenging, as more and more farmers and ranchers throughout the United States need federal assistance when weather disasters hit.

“Whether it’s a goliath blizzard like what hit recently in New Mexico, to El Nino to wildfires, we will respond,” he said of FSA.

He said sometimes that means going back to Congress for more money if there have been so many disasters that the agency’s disaster money is depleted.

“In our industry, opportunity is often created out of efforts to overcome new challenges and farmers and ranchers have a proven track record of harnessing ingenuity, know-how and determination to not just survive, but thrive in an ever-changing environment,” Dolcini told the more than 500 people attending the forum.

“That’s why today’s focus on Climate Smart Farming is so timely. As you know, there are many things we can control in life, but there are at least two things that are unpredictable: the markets and the weather. Sudden changes in either can have a major impact on our food supply,” he said.

“And while these forces may be at least somewhat out of our control, it’s how we adapt to them that will determine our success, Dolcini said.

“It goes without saying that the threat of climate change is far too important of an issue to be swept up in the partisan political climate that exists in Washington, DC,” he said.

Dolcini said people in agriculture not only have to figure out ways to avoid climate disasters in the future, but also how to learn from what is happening today to help change farm and ranch operations to increase profitability.

If you like what you read from the magazine, you can subscribe to it by sending $50 for one year or $75 for two years to Empire Farm & Dairy, 260 Washington St., Watertown, NY  13601

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