North Country farmers and gardeners are adjusting to climate change (part one)

“Society is facing huge problems with a changing climate, and it’s important to remind representatives that their actions not only affect Americans and the world today, but these actions can have long-lasting implications for future generations.”

These are the words of an 18-year-old Cornell University student quoted in a recent article in the Cornell Chronicle, the weeklynewspaper published by the Cornell University News Service.

She’s one of four students who recently visited Congress to speak with, among others, officials from the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as Representative Tom Reed, and members of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. She went on to say, “The politicization of climate change is frustrating for me and that was amplified in Washington. There, climate change is just another policy issue that can be leveraged to advance a political agenda. In the meetings, I tried to convey that climate change is a real issue disrupting millions of lives across the world.”

Most of the people that I speak with accept that what’s happening with our weather is more than just a series of chance occurrences or quirks; that climate change is here; that it’s real. Fortunately, those of us living here in northern New York have never known raging forest fires, like the ones that incinerate large areas of the west, reducing mile after mile to ashes, year after year. Nor have we experienced the frequent, extensive tornadoes that the folks in the Midwest and Southeast are learning to cope with; storm events that more and more often and regularly spawn multiple twisters — many of which tear through small towns leaving tremendous, sometimes unimaginable destruction in their wake. But, northern New York has seen its fair share of flooding in recent years. And I believe the same can be said for damaging ice, hail and wind events, as well as generally inconsistent, unpredictable, and even bizarre weather.

It certainly would seem that summers that are, by and large, hotter and drier and winters with more frequent freezing rain, sleet, and ice events, and less snow cover, along with erratic extremes in weather, are no longer atypical. In fact, I have no doubt that many would agree that these things are now to be expected. North Country gardeners and farmers are accustomed to coping with fluctuating weather conditions. But, like so many others, I really don’t seem to be able to get a handle on just what the new ‘normal’ is. And I can’t help but wonder what things might be like ten or twenty years from now.

David W. Wolfe, Ph.D., professor of plant ecology in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University and chair of the Cornell University Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future Climate Change Consortium, believes that we have entered “an era of great uncertainty that makes gardening even more challenging than it was before.”

In the book, “The New American Landscape: Leading Voices on the Future of Sustainable Gardening,” edited by Thomas Christopher (2011 – Timber Press), Wolfe wrote, “We are in the unfortunate situation of being the first generation of gardeners, ever, who cannot rely on historical weather records to tell us what our climate is, or what to expect in the future.”

In a recent article published by Fortune magazine, professor Wolfe writes, “Many farmers I know are not at all comfortable with the highly politicized phrase “climate change” or convinced about its causes. However, they have come to recognize that they must cope with more extreme and less predictable weather than previous generations had to face. Farmers can no longer rely on the historical weather patterns for their region to tell them when to plant, what to plant, or how to grow it.”

We know that average temperatures across the Northeast have risen by over 2 degrees since 1970, and that average winter temperatures are 4 degrees warmer. During that same period of time, extreme rainfall events (more than 2 inches in 48 hours) have increased by 71 percent; a rate of change far beyond anything previous generations of farmers have experienced. Changes in what can be considered ‘normal’ temperature and precipitation are expected to continue and are likely to intensify, with yearly average temperatures from 3 to 5.5 degrees warmer by 2050 and precipitation coming in more intense bursts with longer gaps in between.

These trends (those currently occurring as well as those predicted to occur within this century) pose many new challenges. Increased flooding, summer heat stress, short-term drought, and more intense pressure from weeds and pests raise questions about the future-viability of many of the long-established commodities (i.e. dairy products, potatoes, apples, cruciferous vegetables) that are the backbone of the agricultural sector in northern New York (and beyond).Even moderately warm temperatures, (i.e. more than 75 degrees with moderate humidity) can lead to milk production decline.

As temperatures rise and growing seasons lengthen, many farmers are already experimenting with new crops and crop varieties. To address short-term drought by improving water-retention in soils, and to protect fields from torrential-rain-erosion problems, as well as to sequester carbon, we’re seeing an increase in reduced tillage (no-till and low-till) practices and the use of cover crops. It is important, however, to know the nature of your soil before engaging in any form of reduced tillage. Contact Cornell Cooperative Extension for assistance in assessing the suitability of your soil to reduced tillage.

Climate Change has been a focus of research at Cornell University for many years now. More than 50 faculty members and researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are currently involved. In my next column article, I’ll look at some of the potential impacts on both gardening and agricultural production and the possible solutions.