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Predicting unpredictability

Local farmers say changing climate presents opportunities and challenges

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Paul Fouts checks on his cows Thursday at his farm in Groton. Fouts said the potential for longer, frost-free seasons opens some growing possibilities.

A farmer’s work relies a lot on one thing — Mother Nature. Mother Nature is fickle. The summer of 2016 brought with it a drought. The summer of 2017 — floods. Some crops did fine, others not so much.

Recent research at Cornell University says climate change is behind the changes, and those changes are beginning to show their effects on farmers.

The effects are not all bad, like extreme precipitation. Researchers see a trend in warmer weather and longer frost-free periods going into the fall buying time for bigger harvests and longer establishment of winter cover. But the changes are not all good, either.

“We have to face new challenges,” said David Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University, and one of the authors of the research paper “Unique Challenges and Opportunities for Northeastern U.S. Crop Production in a Changing Climate.”

The research

The research, lead by Wolfe — with co-authors including Arthur T. DeGaetano, Gregory M. Peck, Mary Carey, Lewis H. Ziska, John Lea-Cox, Armen R. Kemanian, Michael P. Hoffmann and David Y. Hollinger — followed years of work — including looking at data from the 2016 drought and last year’s rain storms, talking with farmers about how they adapt and looking at integrated test management tracking of insects and weeds — and 18 months of writing, Wolfe said.

One big take away from the research is climate change in the Northeast has brought with it warmer temperatures and a longer frost-free period, but also prolonged periods of spring rains — a 71 percent increase in the frequency of extreme rain since the mid-1990s, more than anyplace else in America.

About a third of all crop losses reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency from 2013 to 2016 were associated with excess precipitation.

On the other hand, about 40 percent of all crop losses reported by Northeast farmers in the same period were caused by drought.

Wolfe said farmers will deal with more short-term droughts and heavier rain storms. “We have to face new challenges,” he said.

Farmers

Ken McEvoy, an owner of Mac-Mara Farm in Marathon, said most of his fields are in the river valley, making wet fields an issue to deal with without the added rain.

McEvoy said his family has been on the farm since 1951 and he’s been there for 25 years. In that time, he has seen a shift in the weather turning more extreme or violent.

Taking this winter into account, McEvoy said peopleexperienced 60-degree days in February and single-digit days in March.

While waiting on some fields to dry there may be a few drier ones to plant in. McEvoy said that doing that has always been standard practice for him. “It is what it is when dealing with Mother Nature,” he said.

Paul Fouts, owner of Fouts Farms in Groton, said farmers have long planted cover crops to deal with water, and installed drainage tile, a system that removes excess water from soil below the surface.

“We have lots of that,” Fouts said.

The cover crop, which is planted before winter, creates a way of holding the soil together to reduce erosion.

The potential for longer frostfree seasons opens some possibilities, he said, perhaps planting corn with a longer period to maturity. “Generally the longer maturing variety yields better,” Fouts said. The extra fall warmth would also give farmers time to put in a cover crop, which helps protect and enrich the soil, after the corn, crops like rye and oats.

“They would get established better if it’s warmer,” he said.


In the garden

Claudia Hitt, a horticulture educator through Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County, sees heavy spring rain affecting backyard gardens, but she also sees longer frost-free periods being beneficial.

With heavy rains, nutrients are leached away and gardens are kept wet for longer periods of time, she said. “If you have an inground garden you have to wait for Mother Nature,” she said.

Raised garden beds, however, drain faster.

People looking to start a backyard garden should take their time when preparing. Monitor the site for the right amount of sun and water, Hitt said.

“You don’t want your garden in a wet site,” she said.

Pick the right spot and skim off the growing sod. Then before the winter hits, lay down plastic barriers over the soil to keep grass, weeds and other pesky plants under control, Hitt said. It also gives a spot for worms to surface, softening the soil.

With the thought of a prolonged period of frost-free time in the fall as David Wolfe, a professor of plant and soil ecology in the School of Integrative Plant Science at Cornell University, suggests planting certain types of crops could benefit.

Hitt had a list of crops people could plant that benefit from a longer growing season, including: pumpkins, winter squash, carrots, parsnips.

“Those do well around here,” Hitt said.


The future

Sure, the future will bring challenges as the climate changes, Wolfe said, but opportunities, too.

“For this part it’s not all doom and gloom,” he said.

With a prolonged frost-free period, farmers would be able to explore new crop options, like a longer season variety of corn. Farmers would have a longer growing season and winter cover crops would have more time to grow before winter arrives.

Double-cropping — planting a second crop after a first has been harvested or planting a second
crop along with the first one — would also be a benefit. Farmers would be able to plant two types of cash crops instead of one. That could include choosing a new crop that has a longer growing season or a new variety of an old crop, like a corn variety, he said.

The longer frost-free period could improve soil health, too, Wolfe said. Farmers would face more time in starting a winter cover crop to help offset erosion.

However, the next generation of farmers will be the first generation who can’t rely on historic records, he said. “They’ll have to get away from the calendar.”

They’ll also have to look at diversifying crops more so they can provide for their families regardless what weather comes their way.

“It’s really an uncertainty,” he said.

Wolfe said he can think of a few policy changes that will help farmers adapt in the future. Those include low-cost loans; incentives for farmers to rebuilding soil organic matter to buffer from flooding or drought; and incentives to help farmers buy new tillage and planting equipment.

Experiences in new extreme weather will also bring unpredictability, Wolfe said. Springs are wetter and August is drier.

Fouts agrees. “I think the bigger problem seems to be extreme storms,” he said. Instead of half an inch of rain, 4 inches. “It’s always difficult to plan for the weather.”

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