(Not So) Nice Weather We’re Having

The debate about the human causes of climate change continues to rage.  What isn’t being debated is the increasing variability of the weather farmers are experiencing around the world.  Every four years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) produces its “Climate Change Special Report.” The most recent, in June 2017, documented evidence that sixteen of the last seventeen years were the warmest on record, and that “heavy precipitation events” have increased in both frequency and intensity.

Few people in most parts of the U.S. will argue about changes in the intensity of our weather. In January 2017, tornadoes plowed up $7 million worth of damage to farm fields in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. The Weather Channel noted that it was among the largest winter outbreaks of twisters ever recorded.  In the summer of 2018, 30-foot high walls of flame torched eighty square miles of wheat fields in Oregon. Until then, it had looked to be a record harvest. Meanwhile, northern Europe struggled with the devastating combination of a prolonged drought and an unprecedented heat wave.

These extremes have cost U.S. farmers a lot—fully $1.1 trillion since 1980, according to the NOAA report. And they imperil a world where food shortages threaten billions of people. Farm fields are in a climatic and sociopolitical bulls-eye, and few people have more incentive to protect them than farmers.

The no-till solution

Roric Paulman grows 11 different crops on his 6,000 acres in Sutherland, Neb. “You can get more or less rain, year to year,” he observes. “But it’s the intensity now that’s different. There are harsher storms than I ever remember. We used to get pebble-sized hail for a few minutes. Now we get golf-ball size hail that’s knocking down roofs. It mows our crops right off.”

Paulman took over his father’s farm in 1985, and his 25-year old son now works the fields by his side. He also has grandchildren who may want to join the family enterprise one day. So Paulman isn’t running from the climate fight. He’s taking it on, as a way to defend his land and his family.

“We know a lot more now than we did a hundred years ago,” he says. “We have better data on the whole region. I have a weather station in every one of my fields, and there are satellites overhead every four minutes. We can track a million data points now, to figure out what we need to do.”

Paulman is a firm believer in that old saw that “the trend is your friend,” so he carefully follows where these data points are leading him. In the tradition-bound field of agriculture, that isn’t always easy. But now that he’s got the data points to demonstrate the effects of climate shifts, he seeks out the techniques and technologies he needs to meet them.

One key change the climate trends suggested to him is no-till farming. For decades, the tilling of fields has been standard procedure. Farmers would close-cut crops at harvest time, then plow the seed-bed in the spring and sow seeds in the bare ground.

That may have worked in more placid times, but the more extreme weather he and others are experiencing can wash or blow large amounts of soil away. As much as 36 billion tons of topsoil are lost worldwide each year, according to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. No-till is one of the answers—more and more farmers grow cover crops through the winter to protect the land, cut erosion, build more organic material and nutrients in the soil, and increase water retention.

Each spring, Paulman now plants his crops directly into the winter cover, to avoid disturbing the healthy ecosystem he’s developing in his soil. The residual organic matter from his cover crops, and the left over plant material from harvest, effectively capture moisture in the winter, locking it into the ground. This limits agricultural runoff from his fields, and boosts organic matter in his soil. “We leave the trash, and farm right through it,” says Paulman. That adds up to a more resilient field, a better harvest, and better prospects for his land down the road.

Paulman has also planted 1,500 trees, which combat erosion from winds that blow with increased fury as temperatures fluctuate widely. But these new plantings are also tangible evidence of his commitment to the future of his farm. They’re a long-term investment, and they’ll grow just like his grandkids. And now those kids are more likely to inherit something worthwhile, whichever way the wind blows.

Saving the soil

Trey Hill, a second-generation farmer who has been working his dad’s 10,000-acre farm on the Eastern Shore of Maryland for the past two decades, has experienced drastic changes in the weather at first-hand. “Our seasons are much longer now,” he observes. “Our weather patterns are in absolutes. We have a colder, wetter spring, with much more rainfall, flooding, and ponding. It’s everything that drives us nuts, in fact.”

Hill, too, is a proponent of no-till farming. “It used to be that everything was dead when we started out each spring,” he says. Following the techniques his father used to farm these same fields, he would till the soil each spring, to kill weeds and prepare the seedbed.

No more. “It was like taking a bulldozer to the house,” he says. “Now we plant new crops straight into our cover crops. We’re managing the farm’s ecosystem year-round, to pull nutrients up into the soil, and maintain what’s there. It’s earthworm and microbe habitat, in addition to a farm field.”

Not only is he maintaining his yields, he’s finding that, when that four-inch gully washer strikes in the spring, the soil absorbs it, rather than sending his precious soil off toward Chesapeake Bay. “These new methods go against every grain in my dad’s body,” says Hill. “But we’re learning it together. Now he says he wished we’d started doing it twenty-five years ago.”

The good fight

Among the most important climate-related changes agricultural scientists are tracking currently is the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, which can raise temperatures and encourage weeds. Warmer weather means extended growing seasons, and that in turn means that various pests are more mobile and more active for longer periods each year. This in part is why farmers like Paulman are increasingly turning to high-tech systems for tracking pests, invasive weeds, and weather extremes, as well as a new mix of biological, mechanical, and chemical weapons to keep the invaders at bay. You don’t need more pesticides, but rather, better-targeted ones, for specific species and moments in the growing season.

Increasing the organic matter in the soil—through cover crops, new planting techniques, and a changing approach to harvest leftovers—can also help with “carbon sequestration,” the process of locking up excess carbon before it rises into the atmosphere and reducing the amount of CO2, the greenhouse gas scientists cite as the probable cause of climate change. “The farm is a perfect place to do that,” says Paulman. It’s a three-in-one benefit, reducing the gases heating our atmosphere, depriving superweeds such as cheatgrass, Canada thistle, and kudzu of the conditions they need to thrive, and improving the food crops that push past them.

Farming may be intensely local, but it’s also more international than ever. Both Paulman and Hill cite an international group of colleagues whom they meet with regularly to discuss the threats to their fields, and the strategies that work best in countering them. “I have farmer friends in Australia, Argentina, and South Africa--lots of places,” says Paulman. They’re all seeing the same things: With weather, what goes around the globe will eventually come around to your farm, as well. An innovation in Nebraska might be useful in Argentina, too. “We all want what’s best for our farms and what’s best for the world,” says Paulman.