‘One extreme after another’: Climate change forces region’s ag sector to adjust practices

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A combine harvesting soybeans in a field.
Scott Myers harvests soybeans in a combine with help from his sons, Rowan, Callum and Henson, in Orrville, Ohio, Oct. 7. (Lucy Schaly photo)

DALTON, Ohio — About 25 or 30 years ago, half an inch to 1 inch at once was a big rain, according to Scott Myers, a Dalton, Ohio, farmer. He has been farming full-time for 20 years with his father, who has been farming since the 1970s.

Now, a big rain is 2 to 3 inches at once. And he sees that happen several times a year.

“People like to debate what is causing climate change,” Myers said. “But I don’t know how anybody can argue that the climate isn’t changing … we have to learn to change with it.”

Climate change

Extreme rain has been the hallmark of climate change in Ohio and much of the Midwest. A prime example was 2019, with many farmers forced to delay planting, or not plant at all, due to heavy rains and flooding in the spring.

Midwest farmers can expect warmer and wetter trends to continue, said Aaron Wilson, Ohio State University atmospheric scientist, in a 2020 Farm Science Review presentation. By the end of the century, Ohio’s climate could look more like Virginia’s in the winter and Arkansas’s in the summer.

According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, by the end of the century, winter and spring precipitation in the Midwest could increase by up to 30%.

In the contiguous 48 states of the U.S., eight of the top 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 1998, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And recently, more precipitation is coming in intense, one-day events. In the contiguous 48 states of the U.S., nine out of the top 10 years for extreme one-day precipitation events have happened since 1990.

These conditions present challenges for agriculture, the assessment said, including soil erosion, more pest and disease pressure, and more wet conditions at the beginnings and ends of growing seasons. The effects of climate change can disrupt food access and increase food prices.

The challenges also include unpredictable seasons and greater flood risks, which could mean more disruptions ahead for agriculture, Wilson said.

Four boys and their mother and father stand in front of a John Deere combine in a soybean field.
The Myers family, of Dalton, Ohio, from left, Callum, 9, Henson, 4, Gannon, 12, mom Nicole and dad Scott, and Rowan, 7, stand in front of their John Deere combine Oct. 7. (Lucy Schaly photo)

Emissions and agriculture

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere. The gases include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases. Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change.

Transportation, electricity production, industry, commercial and residential and agriculture are the main sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

In the U.S., agriculture contributed about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, in 2018.

Worldwide, agriculture, forestry and land use contributed about 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, as of 2010.

Carbon dioxide can be removed from the atmosphere and stored by plants and soil, depending on how the soil is managed. This is called biological carbon sequestration.

Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Adjusting

To cope, Myers has used options that disturb soil less and keep it healthier, like no till or reduced tillage, adding drainage tile and using cover crops on much of the 2,500 acres he farms.

Myers has switched from conventional to organic on most of his acres, due in part to demand from customers. His main crops are hay, corn, soybeans, oats, cereal rye, barley and sunflowers.

The sunflowers, which he sells for sunflower oil, are a new crop for him. They give him something to plant in July if the weather delays planting for other crops too much.

Flooding and freezing

On Betsy Libby’s small, diversified vegetable farm, Blackbird Meadows Farm, in Maximo, Ohio, she also uses sustainable and organic methods, though she is not certified organic. Her focus on using compost and grass clippings to improve soil health helps her deal with heavy rain. But it’s hard when the water doesn’t stop coming.

“I think that’s the thing. You get it again, and you get it again,” Libby said. “It’s not like an isolated event.”

She’s had these problems for the last several years, “but this year, it just seems like it’s been just one extreme after the other.”

Farming is a side job for her, too, which helps, since she isn’t relying on her farm to survive. Having diverse crops helps too, since weather that destroys one crop might benefit, or at least not kill, another one.

“I know that there’s people out there that will say it’s a cycle … I can’t imagine the entire country is just in a cycle,” Libby said. “There used to be some predictability … now, the generalities are just out the window.”

In addition to rain that flooded her barn and her main field, this year, Libby had challenges with cold weather in the spring. She has six pear trees in her small orchard, which has about 20 trees total. Before a late snow in May, all of the pear trees were “perfectly in blossom,” she said.

She wound up with only one pear out of six trees.

Extremes

Robert Crassweller, professor of horticulture at Pennsylvania State University, said since about 2008, he’s noticed orchards having earlier bloom periods in the spring. Some years, like 2012, orchards have had issues when blooms come too early and get frosted out. In Pennsylvania, some cold hardy varieties have trouble with the heat in summer.

With temperatures warming and growing seasons lengthening, some orchard owners are trying varieties that have longer growing seasons.

“It’s really the extremes that are the problem,” Crassweller said. “I think we could probably adapt if everything just gradually warmed up or cooled down either way, but extremes — that’s where we get the problem.”

Disease and pest pressures are another issue, he said. In some cases, Pennsylvania is seeing more waves of some insects than it used to. And, of course, there’s always the rain.

A worker transfers soybeans into a truck.
An employee of Woodlyn Acres Farm, of Dalton, Ohio, moves freshly harvested soybeans into a waiting truck for owner Scott Myers. (Lucy Schaly photo)

Adapting and mitigating

Agriculture isn’t just affected by climate change — it also plays a role in causing it, scientists say. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture contributes to about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., as of 2018.

Climate change legislation

Many farming groups are seeking legislation that provides incentives for farmers to take actions to lessen the impact of climate change.

OEFFA

Amalie Lipstreu, of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association, points to the Agriculture Resilience Act as one example of a federal bill the organization supports. The bill includes goals for improving soil health, protecting farmland, supporting pasture-based livestock systems, investing in research on climate, investing in on-farm energy and reducing food waste.

National Young Farmers Coalition

Young farmers have particular challenges that come from things like lack of land access and difficulty getting involved in federal conservation programs, said Sanaz Arjomand, of the National Young Farmers Coalition. Many of the coalition’s members have smaller, diversified farms. It can be harder to measure the benefits of their sustainable practices on these types of farms, which can make it harder to get involved in programs that compensate farmers for those benefits, Arjomand said. The coalition wants to see programs made more accessible for young farmers.

And as the average age of farmers increases, the coalition is also hoping to see more incentives for retiring farmers to transition their land to young or beginning farmers or enroll their farmland in programs that protect it from development.

National Farmers Union

Jennifer Hopkinson, of the National Farmers Union, said the organization believes climate change policy that affects agriculture should be voluntary and incentive-based, like U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs, support on-farm energy production and consider market-based solutions.

She mentioned tax credits for carbon sequestration as one example of a market-based solution.

The organization has also endorsed the Agriculture Resilience Act; the Farmer-Driven Conservation Outcomes Act, which would give the USDA the authority to measure, evaluate and report on conservation program outcomes; and the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would establish a USDA certification program that would help solve technical barriers for farmers to participate in carbon markets.

All of those bills were introduced in Congress this year and referred to committees on agriculture and other relevant committees.

American Farm Bureau Federation

The American Farm Bureau Federation has also supported the Growing Climate Solutions Act. Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations for the bureau, emphasized the importance of educating farmers on things like carbon markets and best practices for soil health. Walmsley also said farmers need recognition for the conservation work they’ve already done.

The bureau’s climate change policy states it supports using market-based solutions, rather than emission limits, to reduce emissions, alternative energy sources and re-evaluating emission control rules for farming practices.

The policy says it opposes “any climate change legislation until other countries meet or exceed U.S. requirements.”

It also opposes legislation that requires agricultural entities to report greenhouse gas emissions, establishes mandatory cap-and-trade provisions, any Environmental Protection Agency regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, any attempt to regulate livestock methane emissions under the Clear Air Act or other legislative vehicles and taxes on carbon uses and emissions, among other things.

That’s less than some sectors, like transportation and electricity. But there are still some things agriculture can do to help lessen the effects of climate change. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, some of those things overlap with adaptation strategies. For example, some strategies that reduce erosion and runoff and increase soil health, also increase soil’s ability to store carbon.

Myers said there are more farmers trying to reduce the impact of, or adapt to, climate change than there used to be. But some still don’t see a problem.

“There’s a lot of farmers that don’t believe in climate change,” Myers said. “I just don’t understand how they can feel that way … I hate to say this, but it’s our political climate in our country, currently.”

Politics have long played a role in how climate change is addressed in the U.S., and are a large part of this year’s presidential election battle.

In the Sept. 29 presidential debate, President Donald Trump said he does believe human actions affect climate change, to an extent, but turned discussions on West Coast forest fires to forest management. When asked why he rolled back a plan that limited carbon emissions in power plants, he said the plan was driving energy prices up.

He withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement in 2017, and over 100 environmental regulations have been rolled back or weakened under his administration.

Democratic candidate Joe Biden discussed his plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and argued against claims they would cost jobs or weaken the economy. His campaign website says it is indisputable that humans contribute to the greenhouse effect. He also plans to recommit the U.S. to the Paris Agreement.

Policies

“I think, unfortunately, the term ‘climate change’ has become over politicized,” said Amalie Lipstreu, policy director for the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association.

But, she added, farmers tend to be attuned to the weather, and more and more are recognizing the impact of climate change on their farms.

Sanaz Arjomand, federal policy director for the National Young Farmers Coalition, said 60% of the coalition’s farmers are already seeing impacts of climate change.

“Very broadly, our farmers are really looking for some sort of legislative action on climate change, period,” Arjomand said.

Many farmers’ groups are seeking incentives and more technical support and research for farmers to adopt practices that help lessen climate change’s impact.

“Science is increasingly showing us that if you implement certain management practices on your land … you will increase … your soil health,” said Jenny Hopkinson, of the National Farmers Union.

Those practices include things like cover crops and no till or reduced tillage. Improving soil health can allow soil to sequester carbon. But those practices also have costs associated with them.

“We need to recognize the public good … and help to provide the resources for farmers to make these decisions,” Hopkinson said.

She pointed to a proposed carbon sequestration tax credit for agriculture as one example.

Andrew Walmsley, director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation, agreed that if practices that have costs for farmers have societal benefits, farmers need incentives to do them.

But when asked about challenges for farmers for reducing the effects of and adapting to climate change, Walmsley said, “I think the biggest challenge is that they might feel a little under appreciated.”

In its discussions on climate, the bureau focuses on what has already been accomplished.

New coalition

The bureau helped found the Farmers for a Sustainable Future coalition early in 2020. The National Farmers Union later joined the coalition, which has 22 commodity groups as members.

One of the coalition’s goals is unifying agriculture’s message on sustainability. But, Walmsley said, that goal is easier to set than it is to achieve. Different sectors of agriculture face different challenges and priorities. But there are some things in common.

“Economic viability has to be a core component,” he said. “If a farmer can’t survive economically, he’s not able to stick around for another growing season and carry out those practices.”

Future

Myers, for his part, has found that some of his practices save him money on things like trips over the field, for example.

“But it’s also about what’s best for the ground,” he added. “It’s not all about profit in organic agriculture. Sometimes it’s about your soil.”

Myers is hoping to pass the farm down to one of his children someday. When that happens, he wants to have improved the soil, rather than take away from it.

“As hard as it is for us to think long term … it’s the best thing to do for farmers,” Lipstreu said. “It’s the best thing to do for the public that depends on farmers for a stable and resilient food supply.”

During the pandemic this year, Libby has noticed more focus on local food in her community, and at the Alliance Farmers Market, where she sells her produce. She thinks that could open opportunities to talk to customers about how climate change is affecting local farmers.

“I think that what we’ve experienced with the COVID pandemic has revealed some of the vulnerabilities with the food system,” Lipstreu said. “It’s built to be highly efficient, but that efficiency can mean it’s also really brittle and not resilient when it comes to major disruptions.”

A young boy stands in a soybean field, looking at the plants.
Henson Myers, 4, checks out the soybean crop the family is harvesting, in Orrville, Ohio, Oct. 7. (Lucy Schaly photo)

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