How Climate Change is Changing Farming

Drought Affect on soybeans in TexasFarming was never an easy gig, but lately it’s been downright frustrating.

Record heat waves, floods, cold-spells, and droughts are cutting into yields and in some instances ruining entire crops. Analysts warn that such climate change-driven extremes could reduce grain production in G20 countries by up to 8.7 percent by 2020 if no significant action is taken.

Last June’s epic rainfall is a prime example. New Jersey saw an average total of 9.57 inches, 5.55 above the 4.02 average. At our Pennington farm, over 13 inches fell in a 30-day period, wreaking havoc on our more delicate lettuces and brassicas.

“When where we’re getting ¾ of an inch in 20 minutes, the ground becomes completely saturated,” Pennington farm manager says. “All the oxygen is forced out of the soil, and the plants suffer.”

Extreme Weather on the Rise.  

According to climate change scientists, such extreme events are likely to increase. As the world’s climate continues to warm, the National Climate Assessment predicts higher rainfall totals and temperatures, along with more intense droughts and hurricanes. Events like the Colorado wildfires, Superstorm Sandy, and the 2010 Russian drought will likely become the new norm.

All of which bodes ill for agriculture.

“Every year now is made of record-setting months in either temperature or rainfall,” he explains. “Rain comes down so heavy that it rips the leaves, making plants vulnerable to disease.”

If there’s any good news, it’s that organic farming seems best poised to handle these extremes.

Organics to the Rescue

Organic-Farming-in-Promoting-Sustainable-LivingIn a report titled, Organic Farming and Climate Change, the FiBL argues that organic agriculture, thanks to its adaptability and reduced dependence on inputs, will fare better than its conventional counterpart. Organically-managed soil retains significantly more water during drought, and resists erosion more successfully during floods. Organic farmers, necessarily more attuned to changing conditions, can more readily swap crops or tweak techniques than those who rely on chemical inputs. And finally, organic agriculture’s diversity—differing crops, fields, rotations, landscapes, and farm activities—ensures the survival of at least some crops in any given season.

“Already we’re doing a lot to mitigate extremes,” he says. “We grow our heirloom tomatoes in high tunnels to keep the heavy rains off, and give them shade during heat waves.”

We also incorporates a low pressure irrigation system to make efficient use of well-water during drier times. Grassy buffers around the farm’s perimeter prevent valuable soil from being washed into nearby streams. And the promotion of soil biology aids in moisture retention, structural integrity, and nutrient cycling.

An Uphill Battle.

Organic farms, however, account for only 2 percent of total farmland. And while organic sales have been increasing—5.3% in 2009, 7.8% in 2010, and 9.45% in 2011—conventional agriculture still dominates. To defend against the coming floods, droughts, and heat-waves, we need not only narrow this gap but take significant strides in climate change-resistant technologies.

Part of this includes creating cultivars of drought- and heat-resistant species. And because climate change lengthens growing seasons, new disease- and pest-resistant species too. Irrigation and water use will have to become more efficient. Conservation and reduced-tillage practices will need to be refined. And finally, new crops will need to be experimented with.

“The goal is to build a more resilient system,” he says. “And if you’re doing everything right, your farm will be better suited to handle the ever-changing climate.”

Storm clouds may be gathering on agriculture’s horizons, but humans are nothing if not resourceful and innovative. Put our minds together, and we can solve this puzzle.





By |March 28th, 2014|News|Comments Off on How Climate Change is Changing Farming

Soil. The Other Black Gold.

Soil Erosion in Kansas

Soil Erosion in Kansas

When we think about natural resource depletion, most of us think fossil fuels, fresh water, or helium. Few would imagine our planet ever running out of topsoil. Yet according to a recent Cornell University study, that’s precisely what’s happening—at a rate of 10 to 40 percent a year, one of our most precious resources is being depleted.

Topsoil, as defined by Science Dictionary, is the upper portion of soil, usually dark-colored and rich in organic material. On average, our planet is covered with less than three feet of this vital compound. Without it, agriculture would cease to exist, and fish and algae, which depend on the transfer of top-soil-specific nutrients via rainwater, could face extinction. And because topsoil acts as a sponge, flooding would be more pervasive and destructive.

More topsoil facts:

  • 37,000 square miles of cropland is lost every year to soil erosion.
  • Over the last 40 years, erosion has resulted in a 30 percent reduction in the world’s arable soil.
  • Air-borne dust, which is increased by erosion, acts not only as an abrasive and air pollutant, but also as a vector for over 20 infectious diseases.
  • To replenish but a single inch of topsoil takes approximately one hundred years.

Indeed, such sobering statistics have led Cornell Professor of Ecology David Pimentel to call soil erosion “second only to population as the biggest environmental problem the world faces.” Modern agriculture, residential construction, deforestation, overgrazing, and mining all share some of the blame.  Clearly, a change is needed—but what?

In terms of agricultural practices at least, a consensus does seem to be emerging. Tilling, once the industry-standard for controlling weeds, is now being reexamined. When we till, we leave soil exposed to wind and rain, the two biggest causes of erosion. Planting cover crops also reduces erosion; so too can leaving straw from previous harvests. Geotextiles, permeable fabrics used for reinforcement and protection, are yet another option.

Organic farming methods can also help. Pesticides and herbicides sap the soil of vital nutrients, leading to poor water retention and shallow root growth. A healthy, vibrant soil, with a diverse and thriving biology, is much more resistant to the forces of erosion. Only by focusing on soil biology, says Blue Moon Acres’ owner Jim Lyons, do we see decreased disease, greater sustainability, and improved nutrient levels—the cornerstones of erosion prevention. “Erosion is really just a symptom of a problem,” Lyons says.

Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney takes it a step further. He recommends “…getting carbon back in the soil…” by adding manure and even considering “…using human waste from cities as fertilizer, instead of just flushing it all out to sea.” He also suggests developing pricing mechanisms that take into account the environmental and health costs of destructive agricultural and distribution practices. “Farmers need to be appropriately rewarded for regenerating the environment and producing food that supports a healthier society.”

The endangerment of topsoil is a crisis of the highest order, one that could well imperil both our species and our planet. Though the path towards soil sustainability is a trying one, it is nevertheless within our reach. The question is, will we rise to the challenge?


By |September 27th, 2013|News, Uncategorized|Comments Off on Soil. The Other Black Gold.