Whatever advantages one might envision for farming in the Northeast as our region warms—ability to grow new crops, longer growing season, greenhouse gas effect on plants, and more rainfall—seem to be offset by the disadvantages.
The disadvantages are numerous: more spring flooding (soil erosion), more episodes of summer drought, more plant diseases, more crop pests, more volatility in frost/freeze events, and a whole lot more.
A recently released study examines all these variables, trying to give farmers a heads up on what’s coming their way:
Unique challenges and opportunities for northeastern US crop production in a changing climate Climate change may both exacerbate the vulnerabilities and open up new opportunities for farming in the Northeastern USA. Among the opportunities are double-cropping and new crop options that may come with warmer temperatures and a longer frost-free period. However, prolonged periods of spring rains in recent years have delayed planting and offset the potentially beneficial longer frost-free period. Water management will be a serious challenge for Northeast farmers in the future, with projections for increased frequency of heavy rainfall events, as well as projections for more frequent summer water deficits than this historically humid region has experienced in the past. (Wolfe, D.W., DeGaetano, A.T., Peck, G.M. et al. Climatic Change (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-2109-7)
But still, the study concludes that, despite the disadvantages, it may not be so bad:
“On the other hand, adaptation strategies that involve diversifying production systems to cope with climate uncertainty and building resilience to rainfall uncertainty by improving soil health, and improving IPM strategies to cope with new pest and weed dynamics could have an overall positive environmental impact.” (ibid)
True, farmers can do a lot to address this crisis, as described in the study. But. One of the disadvantages not mentioned in the study is the problem of human inertia on Climate Change. Too many in the public don’t openly support the science behind Climate Change, which means it’s less likely we’ll vote for leaders based on this crisis, less likely to prioritize renewable energy over fossil fuels (which will warm the planet more), and more likely we all will be overwhelmed by the disadvantages (consequences).
For example, the study recommends that farmers use less pesticides and herbicides for the health of our waters and soil. But farming, like any other business, is more likely to address their immediate problems producing food with the most efficient and least expensive options available. Pesticide and herbicide use are usually favored over the other methods of controlling crop pests because these risky chemical fixes are easier, cheaper, and quicker than conforming to sustainable methods that don’t degrade our soil and compromise our environment. Otherwise, organic farming would outweigh traditional farming in the marketplace, which it doesn’t.
Even if farmers take advantage of all the new technology being made available to them, they must try to keep back the floods released by a culture mostly indifferent to the urgency behind this crisis.
The take-home message from this new study for me is that farming in our region is increasingly going to find historical data and practices less useful. We’ll be farming on a warmer world. We all will be living in a warmer place. The study above (along with many others) should be a wake-up call that we in the Northeast are going to have to adapt quickly to the changes warming will bring.
Scientists can help predict what problem businesses, like farming, can expect with Climate Change and even present a variety of tools and methods to deal with the changes. But scientists still haven’t figured out how to change the political climate so that we’ll act on a scale and time frame that will matter.
Hardy as they are, farmers are unlikely to address the problems of food production in a warmer Northeast on their own; they’re going to need everyone’s support to lower the speed of temperature rise in order to keep us fed. Farming, as just about everything else in our world, must be viewed through the lens of Climate Change.
Previous articles of mine on food and Climate Change
- · The Fuel Cost and Food Crisis (May 2008)
- · Buying from local markets in Rochester, NY. (August 2008)
- · Agriculture in the Rochester NY region during Climate Change (August 2013)