Producing Earth's bounty in a changing climate
By Jon Scholl
© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.
Earth Day is always a time to reflect on how we can be the best stewards of our precious natural resources. Everyone depends on farmers for their food, a relationship concisely articulated by American Farmland Trust's ubiquitous “No Farms, No Food” bumper sticker.
As the past few years have harshly demonstrated, farmers depend on the blessings of the weather to produce that food and earn a living. While sound conservation systems, efficient water and fertilizer use, and other good farm practices are tremendously important, everything on the farm and ranch depends on a predictable and hospitable climate.
Unfortunately, many farmers have begun to feel the pain of a changing climate as it wreaks havoc on the seasons and generates volatility with regional weather patterns. The impacts of climate change are already here. Just ask anyone who farms or ranches.
Superstorm Sandy provided a wake-up call for U.S. coastal cities to the potential consequences of continued inaction, but it may be a more subtle and long-term climate disaster in rural America that hurts the most. For most of the past two years, a large portion of our country has experienced an epic drought; the type of extreme weather climate scientists have consistently told us would occur as climate change worsens. This season, many previously drought-stricken farming regions are dealing with an overabundance of rainfall, which has delayed spring planting, and below-freezing temperatures, which may kill spring crops.
Fortunately for crop producers, the U.S. crop insurance program provides a safety net by providing payment if crops fail. That is not the case for livestock producers, who do not have access to crop insurance and are currently facing significantly higher feed costs. Indeed, the U.S. beef cattle herd size is at its lowest point since 1952.
Unfortunately for the budget, leaving climate change unchecked exposes crop insurance and disaster payments to greater risk. In 2012 alone, $16 billion was paid out to farmers to cover drought losses. As extreme weather events, worsen and become more widespread, and as wildfires and superstorms continue to pummel our landscape, the price we pay for inaction will continue to rise.
Farmers and ranchers, who are most impacted by climate change, can be an important part of the solution. By utilizing sound conservation practices, they can generate multiple ecosystem benefits that improve their economic performance while adapting to climate change. The same practices that mitigate the affects of climate change can also build healthy soil, conserve water and help the land resist impact of disasters.
Indeed, these were among the recommendations in the recently released Agriculture and Forestry in a Changing Climate: The Road Ahead report from the 25x'25 Alliance. The report outlines a series of recommendations and adaptation strategies that will enable the U.S. agriculture and forestry sectors to meet the challenges posed by increasingly variable and unpredictable weather. Adaptation strategies can come in many different forms, but typically fall into three major categories: actions to increase resistance to changes in climate in order to maintain existing practices; actions to improve resilience by investing in steps that preempt disasters and restore systems in the wake of them; and actions to transform operations.
The experiences from my own family farm have taught me that, just like predicting the weather, we can't fully predict Mother Nature. The 25x'25 Alliance report acknowledges that we are just beginning to understand the impacts of a changing climate and that much more information is needed to give farmers the right information and tools to adapt. Ultimately, our survival as farmers and our ability to continue providing a bountiful harvest from the earth is at stake.
Jon Scholl became the President of American Farmland Trust in July 2008, after serving as Counselor to the Administrator for Agricultural Policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) since 2004. Prior to that, Scholl served the Illinois Farm Bureau for 25 years. He is a partner in a family farm in McLean County, Illinois.