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Harvesting Chaos

Farmers in the U.S. and around the world are likely to face serious challenges in the coming decades as new kinds of weather test their ability to bring us the food we all depend on.
 
 
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Most keyboard jockeys would die for the view from Orin Martin's office window: apple trees in blossom, lines of citrus, dozens of varieties of flowers and neat rows of peppers, garlic and potatoes. Martin is a farmer in Santa Cruz, Calif., where for last 30 years he has been an instructor at the University of California's agro-ecology program, one of the nation's oldest organic agriculture curriculums. Strong, stout and built like a tree trunk, with sun-bleached cornsilk hair, thick hands, and deep crowsfeet around his eyes from years of working outdoors, Martin loves farming, and it shows whenever he starts to talk about his craft, as he will happily do for hours on end.

In recent years, however, something has been amiss in Martin's idyllic setting. The weather is changing in strange ways. And for a farmer that's bad news.

"I don't know if you can talk about predictable weather anymore," Martin said on a recent walk through his three-acre plot. "Each of the last ten years has been anomalous in one way or another. The weather here used to be like clockwork. Around March 15 it would stop raining. But all through the '90s we had rain into April, May and even June. If you talk with farmers and gardeners, oh yeah, they think there's something off."

Martin is right. From New England to the Midwest to California, farmers and scientists are noticing that once-dependable weather patterns are shifting, and concern is growing that those changes will have a significant impact on our agriculture system. Farmers in the United States and around the world are likely to face serious challenges in the coming decades as new kinds of weather test their ability to bring us the food we all depend on.

The culprit is climate change, caused by society's burning of fossil fuels. When it comes to global warming, farmers--who are more attuned to weather patterns than most people--may be the proverbial canaries in the coalmine.

"Some of the changes in weather are consistent with climate change predictions, and that's real troublesome," says Michelle Wander, a professor of soil science at the University of Illinois. Wander recently published a report with the Union of Concerned Scientists which predicted that within 25 years Illinois summers may resemble the hotter climate of Arkansas. "By the end of the century, I think we will really be suffering."

The weather changes underway differ by region. In California, which has a typical Mediterranean climate with a wet winter and a dry summer, rainfall is stretching later and later into the spring. New England is experiencing a warming trend, with average temperatures up 1.8 degrees F over the last century. Winter warming in the northeast is even more pronounced; temperatures between December and February increased 4.4 degrees F in the last 30 years, according to a study by the University of New Hampshire. In the Midwest, the springs and summers have become unseasonably wet, while the summers get hotter and drier.

"What we're experiencing is rather abnormal," says Dave Campbell, who farms 225 acres of oats, wheat, corn, soy and hay in Maplepark, Illinois, land that has been in his wife's family since the 1830s. "It just keeps raining and raining. Last year, from May 10 to June 21 we had 13 inches of rain. Normally we have 38 inches of precipitation the whole year. Last year we had real trouble with our wheat crop because it was so excessively wet. We just get dumped with rain."

The weather, of course, has never been exactly dependable--farmers have always been at the mercy of the vagaries of sun and rain. But general weather patterns have at least been broadly predictable, allowing farmers to know when to sow their seed, when to transplant, when to harvest. As weather patterns become less reliable, growers will be tested to develop new rhythms and systems for growing crops.

For a city dweller who thinks that food comes from Safeway, rain may seem like an unqualified benefit when it comes to growing food. Farmers know better. Too much rain at the wrong time can make it difficult to plan or harvest crops. Above-average rainfall also contributes to fungi and insects that can dramatically reduce crop yields. Too much warmth is equally problematic. Some plants require a certain number of frost days each year in order to thrive the following spring. As temperatures warm, farmers who are accustomed to growing, say, blueberries in Maine or soybeans in Indiana may find themselves having to either shift to different crops or actually move their operations to new locales. Unreliable weather will make it harder for farmers to be as productive as we have come to expect.

"When it comes to the weather, we expect the unexpected," says Henry Brockman, 41, a vegetable farmer in Congerville, Illinois. "It's not as predictable as it used to be. It used to be that the ground was frozen all winter. Now in the winter it freezes and thaws, freezes and thaws. Some of the models show this part of the country getting very dry, and that would be a big problem. If the weather got any drier, I wouldn't be able to farm as I do."

Climate change is likely to impact different parts of the world in vastly different ways, climatologists and agronomists say. Scientists at a recent international conference in London reported that warming temperatures could lead to substantial harvest reductions in major food crops such as wheat, soy and rice. And for years the World Bank and others have been warning that climate change will be especially burdensome on poor countries in the tropics, where soil quality is generally inferior. According to a study conducted in the Philippines, for every one degree C increase in temperature, there will be a 10-percent reduction in yields for rice, a staple crop for billions of people.

But here in the U.S., most observers agree, it's doubtful that climate change could cause a food security crisis. The U.S. food system--though highly concentrated in terms of ownership and control--is geographically very diverse, which means that crops could be shifted to other areas if necessary. Also, the U.S. produces so much surplus grains for animal feed and food processing that it would take enormous crop failures to create real food scarcities. At least for residents of the U.S., a climate-change induced famine is unlikely.

The uncertainties wrought by global warming, however, could be make-or-break for many already-struggling farmers unless they are prepared to adapt to new conditions.

"For farmers, climate change is yet another darkness in the night, another stress for farmers facing uncertainties," says Bill Easterling, director of Penn State's Institutes of the Environment and a longtime researcher into climate change and agriculture.

Farmers are a famously adaptive lot, well accustomed to reacting to forces beyond their control. The worry among scientists is that if the agriculture establishment does not take climate change seriously enough, it will become much more difficult to respond effectively when weather disruptions hit. Easterling says the window for farmers to successfully adapt to new weather conditions is about six to 10 years--the time it takes for researchers to breed new seed varieties suited for specific conditions.

"What would worry anyone is if climate change starts to exceed the system's built-in adaptive response," Easterling says.

Among farmers and researchers, there is disagreement about which types of growers climate change will impact most--large agribusiness growing operations, or smaller, family-run farms. Some agriculture industry observers says that the bigger farmers will have an advantage in coping with weather changes, as they will have more resources to switch to new crops. Others says that since family farms usually grow a wider range of crops, their biological diversity will make it easier to cope with whatever changes occur.

"A large corporate potato farm may be more vulnerable because they have all of their eggs in one basket," says Vern Grubinger, a berry specialist at the University of Vermont. "It's very hard to find small, family farms that have only one thing. They may have 100 or so species. You won't be in nearly as bad a shape if you were growing only one or two crops."

"When you have a real diversified profile with what you're planting, you know that at least something will do well," says Santa Cruz farmer Martin. "And that's an advantage."

What all agriculture experts agree on is that farmers need to start preparing today for climate change. Growers ought to be thinking about what warmer temperatures, fluctuations in precipitation, and an increase in extreme weather events will mean for their farms, and how they can respond.

"This is change; it's not necessarily disaster," says Grubinger. "The disaster will come if people aren't prepared."

Jason Mark is the co-author, with Kevin Danaher, of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. He is researching a book about the future of food.