Severe weather is forcing farmers to innovate and invest in new technology.
Like any smart business person, Trey Hill, a fourth-generation farmer from Rock Hill, Md., wants to do things once and move on. The problem is that severe weather—whether it’s torrential rains, extreme summer heat or cold spring temperatures—keeps messing with his best-laid plans.
For the past several years, "large rain events" in late May or early June have forced him to replant large swaths of the more than 10,000 acres farmed by Harborview Farms. This year, five inches of rainfall wiped out big sections that had to be replanted.
"This has become the norm, whereas 20 years ago, it was the exception," said Hill, who plants corn, soybeans and wheat. "We had to incorporate replanting into our budget, given that there’s a pretty good chance we’ll have to do it twice."
Hill was one of several farmers and ranchers speaking in May at a conference on climate change in Washington D.C. put on by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The think tank published a report distributed at the conference concluding that climate change is cutting into productivity gains in the United States and throughout the world.
Farmers may disagree over the cause of climate change, especially whether it’s caused by humans, but it’s difficult to dismiss the extreme weather patterns that have developed in recent years. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack attributed the new patterns to climate change.
"You all know that the climate is changing, and you all know that it impacts agriculture. More intense weather patterns, longer droughts, more severe storms, more pests and diseases—this really does have an impact on agriculture. If we don’t get serious about adapting and mitigating, it will just continue."
Howard W. Buffett, only in his fourth year of farming, picked a difficult time to enter the business. In his first year, flooding of the Mississippi came within a mile of his Nebraska farm. The next year he was hit by drought, which he mitigated with center-pivot irrigation. Buffett reasoned that if he could survive and prosper through this extreme weather, he could stay in business for long-term.
Then this spring, four days and nights of unseasonably cold weather took out nearly his entire cornfield. "I’m standing there looking out over 5.5 million corn plants on 160 acres, and they are all just brown, and withered, and laying on the ground. My heart sank. This is just a horrible sight to see."
Flash forward 48 hours. "We ordered up some good sun, strong winds and high temperatures, and the entire field rebounded. The corn was completely green again. It was growing new leaves. And I thought, ‘my gosh, this is truly remarkable.’"
Buffett had, of course, planted seeds that resulted in resilient plants. But he attributes some of this "miracle," along with a 20% increase in yields during his farming tenure, to sustainable farming practices that improve his chance of success. He refrains from tilling his soil, allowing nutrients from residue to seep back into the ground. He plants a cover crop of radishes. And he rotates his crops.
Patrick O’Toole, owner and manager of Ladder Livestock, hasn’t been as lucky. O’Toole, who raises cattle and sheep and grows hay near Savery, Wyo., lost 150 sheep earlier this year after a big rain turned to snow. This happened soon after the ranch finished shearing its lambs. Unlike corn, O’Toole said dryly, sheep don’t regenerate.
"Once they are gone, they are gone," said the rancher, using the story to illustrate the livestock industry’s need for a financial safety net. O’Toole managed to save many of the ranch’s new lambs in a recently constructed shed. And now he stores water since runoff from the mountains seems to be coming a month early.
O’Toole devotes considerable time to managing for volatility. "Three years ago, we had the wettest year in our history with 350% of normal snowpack. We had to replace all our French drains because of the flooding. The next year was the driest in our 130 years of operation."
Farmers and ranchers continually look for new ways to create more predictable outcomes, noted A.J. Kawamura, a third-generation grower from Orange County, Calif. In Kawamura’s case, given drought conditions that grip the Golden State, that means using water more economically.
Kawamura has already moved to drip irrigation at Orange County Produce. "And now we’re looking very hard at agroponics, which can use 60 to 70% less water than drip irrigation per square foot."
In the future, he predicts that farmers will look to systems that harvest water from the atmosphere, reuse water from their operation, or desalinate water.
"The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough water on the planet—it’s that we have salty water," said Kawamura, who has seen an uptick in the number of reverse osmosis machines wheeled into greenhouses. Thanks in part to this technology, he reported, roughly 40% of vine-ripened tomatoes in California are now produced in hot houses.
Kawamura believes that better-engineered seeds are part of the solution. He might have lost his entire lima bean crop due to high temperatures this May. "Instead, because of a new drought-resistant seed, I’m going to harvest 85%."
Developing new seed varieties that require less water and can withstand more heat will be a big part of the equation going forward, said Gerald Nelson, a former University of Illinois agricultural economist, who wrote the Chicago Council report. Nelson highlighted the need for more basic research.
"We know that higher temperatures are coming, and plants are susceptible to higher temperatures....If you get a really hot, dry period during the peak of pollination, yields go down dramatically."
Hill has responded to hot summer temperatures by planting earlier, despite the threat of big rains. "We have to, because we’re getting such extreme heat in the summer that our corn struggles to pollinate," he said.
Meanwhile, nutrient runoffs from big spring rains have forced him to rethink the timing of applications. With the help of a grant from a nonprofit organization, he has equipped his sprayer with sensors that measure the vegetative index of his crops, varying nitrogen application.
Climate change, farmers speaking at the conference made clear, raises the stakes for farmers at a time when margins are squeezed by lower crop prices. Producers will need to devote more time and money to technology and innovation to sustain a track record of steadily rising yields.