LIVERPOOL, NY – The weather was unusually mild, yet not unwelcome, for the 184th annual gathering of the New York State Agricultural Society and Forum.
The mild winter didn’t surprise keynote speaker Dr. Art DeGaetano.
The professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University and director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center came armed with enough statistical data about upstate New York’s weather in the last century to make the earth spin. He shared his insights during the keynote address on the theme of climate smart farming.
It’s almost a broken record to hear that 2015 was, as its predecessors 2014 and 2013 and so on, the warmest year on Earth since the 19th century when recordkeeping started, according to the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization (WMO). A group of scientific experts, writing in the journal Scientific Reports, also concurred with the view that human activity, primarily by burning of fossil fuels, has caused unprecedented global warming, devastating heat waves, droughts, extreme precipitation and rising sea levels.
The last days of December 2015 and dawn of 2016 delighted us with warmth that is until record snowstorms and flooding shocked and socked parts of the East Coast on the weekend of Jan. 23-24.
DeGaetano’s presentation wasn’t merely to repeat the alarming statistics, but to give farmers and the agricultural industry the knowledge to “set the stage,” he said for inevitable climate change.
“Regardless of the reason for the climate change, climate smart farming can lessen the impact,” he emphasized.
Farmers should have the incentive to forestall or prevent damage to their crops by employing sustainable farming techniques such as utilizing irrigation and drainage, improving water absorption, planting more drought-resistant or hybrid crop varieties, improving soil health, planting cover crops and protecting the watershed.
“The key word is to anticipate change, to be proactive,” he said.
Approximately 36,000 farms in New York occupy nearly 25 percent of the state’s land area. So could climate change jeopardize the state’s ranking among the top five producers in the U.S. for dairy, wine and grapes, apples, cherries, cabbage, potatoes, onions and maple syrup?
“What happens if we continue like this for the next half-century,” DeGaetano asked the audience. “Could we see, for example, a doubling of skin cancer?”
A National Climate Assessment chart showing the change in the Earth’s average surface temperature from 1966-2000 vs. 2000-2100 predicts the northern hemisphere will become 10 degrees warmer by the end of the 21st century. Historical models show the influence of el Nino usually brings greater winter precipitation and warmer temperatures, and it has already impacted U.S. weather this winter.
“Very cold days have become fewer,” DeGaetano said. “Precipitation levels have changed and extreme rainfall (or snow) is up to 30 percent more likely.”
The freeze-free season in upstate New York has increased by about three weeks (less so in northern New York). Meanwhile, the number of dry days in the average growing season has increased by approximately one day in central New York.
Yes, he admitted, climate models can vary because the parameters change. Of course, farmers have always had to deal with droughts or floods or blizzards, but weather patterns are more unpredictable these days.
Dealing with climate change, he said, is like playing a game of poker.
“You need to compute a probability for each hand of cards you’re dealt,” he added. “What’s the probability of experiencing a freeze event; the probability of a four-inch snowfall event or the probability of a 1960s-era drought? Climate smart farming knows whether the deck is stacked. Are you using a deck of poker cards or playing pinochle?”
In 2012, a sudden, unexpected late spring frost devastated many apple blossoms. DeGaetano asked the listeners, “Was 2012 a sign of things to come or did Jack Frost just deal you an uncommon hand?”
Farmers can refer to the Cornell field crops guide, typically a 15-year or a 30-year average to help them plan their spring planting dates and estimate growing degree-days. “Choose hybrids for medium and for long-season,” he said. “Avoid hybrids that require more growing degree days than average; it’s too risky.
“Climate smart farming is knowing what changes the most,” DeGaetano continued. “Is it the mean temperature or the first frost date? Ninety percent of crop kill is based on a change of temperature and only 50 percent is based on climate models. Climate smart farming is making the most of the data, using the data, not the calendar.”
The professor said farmers could do some simple mathematical calculations to monitor growing conditions, to figure out the cumulative growing degree-days based on the farm’s latitude and longitude.
“It used to be what agriculture does is based on historical data when the climate was stable, but that’s no longer the case,” he said. The past is not as relevant now. “You have to deal with year-to-year changes and make sure you win more than you lose.”
Val Dolcini, Administrator of the Farm Service Agency, USDA, followed DeGaetano’s talk.
“We’re working with farmers and ranchers to help them recover from ever-changing weather,” he said.
The FSA is responsible for overseeing the administration of farm commodity and conservation programs nationwide, farm loan programs and certain disaster and federal crop insurance programs. The agency has offices in all 50 states and Dolcini has personally toured almost half of those states during his term. He visited central New York last summer.
Dolcini referred to the UN Climate Change Conference held in Paris, France, last December and the Paris Agreement, an agreement reached by representatives from 196 countries to address climate change.
The conference provides “a framework” for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, “(an) issue too important” to be derailed “by partisan politics in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
Dolcini, a California native who was appointed to his position by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, approved of Obama’s support of the binding and universal resolution to reduce global warming by less than 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“The climate change discussion is not only about the future but an opportunity for today to keep family farms strong,” Dolcini said. He discussed the benefits of enrolling in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), especially watershed protection, as a “short-term gain for farmers, but a long-term gain for society.”