A Question All Farmers Should Answer

By Troy Bishopp

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If you haven’t already heard by now, climate change is on the minds of many New Yorkers, and the world. This has spurred community based leaders and elected officials to open up the (our) coffers in an attempt to research, educate and stem the tide of Mother Nature’s finger-pointing for our years of environmental, financial and social behavior.  Why?  So we can become a more resilient state.

The earth’s condition has inspired me to educate myself at resiliency summits and agricultural meetings to try and separate fact from hysteria; all the while lamenting about my farm’s biggest resiliency question. What is the one thing that will make us (you) more resilient?

After asking many fellow farmers of all persuasions this difficult question, it turns out the answers aren’t black and white. Predictable responses included:  A new generator, more concrete, a new barn, higher prices, affordable health insurance, lowering debt and better soil health.  I thought these were all good, specific, practical answers.

At the recent 184th NYS Agricultural Society Annual Meeting, scientists and farmers also tackled this topic in their themed event; Climate Smart Farming: Changes and Opportunities. The farmer panel featuring certified organic crop farmer, Peter Martens, vegetable CSA farmer, Wendy Burkhart-Spiegel and 950 cow dairyman, Dale Stein, who all talked about their resiliency strategies.

One thing was clear in all the perspectives: It’s not just one thing but an integrated, diverse, long term approach to mitigating the effects of the “crazy weather”.  Soil health, crop diversity, cover crops, minimal tillage, water retention and irrigation practices, alternative and efficient energy systems, strategic buildings and close management and monitoring of all aspects were the key drivers in adapting to future weather changes.

I appreciated the farmers hitting on the economic piece of change as an opportunity. Even though they have made significant investments on their farms to adapt to climate challenges, it’s already starting to pay off.  Dale mentioned thousands of dollars of savings from reduced inputs by using more efficient electrical components, no-till farming practices and a manure storage plastic cover.  Peter said their income is more stable because they farm with diverse crops, trade land-use with other farmers and can realize double-cropping by focusing on living root systems all year round.  Wendy said her customers are increasing because they see climate change as a threat to their food system and want to sustain more local farms.

These farmers echoed Dr. Laura Lengnick’s 30 years of sustainability research and new book: Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate. Lengnick said, “Resistance to change is futile.  We must reduce risk by developing place-based ecosystem designs coupled with local renewable resources and become more self-reliant.”

I liked her future roadmap: “Explore the full range of options to enhance the adaptive capacity of your farm and not limit yourself to only financial or technology tools, address climate risk using a mix of resistance, resilience and transformation strategies, monitor farm performance, make an extreme events plan and develop recovery reserves”.

Professor Art Degaetano from Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Director of the NOAA Northeast Regional Climate Center substantiated my farm’s grazing records by saying, “Extreme rain events are more common, frost-free days have averaged 2 weeks more, winter temperatures are warming, days with snow cover are becoming on average 30 days less and annual precipitation will be 10% more”.

Art hit a nerve with me however, when he suggested that around the year 2050, “A very different climate regime will be realized”. As a father, grandfather and potential great-grandfather, I may live to see and have to manage within this change along with a 6th, 7th and 8th generation on the farm.  It’s a bit scary to see how this prophecy may unfold—or maybe not.

Art also mentioned, “90% of the population agreed that climate change is real but we cannot agree, even slightly, on what solution will prepare or reverse this impending change”. The phrase, “winners and losers” seems to be a debilitating concept and suggests it’s better to stay with the status quo than change.  Ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus surmised, “The only thing that is constant is change.”

After this 6 month quest to answer the ultimate, climate-smart farming resiliency question, I’m looking to my past for the answer, since my ancestors survived the dust bowl, the great depression and many wars without the tools I am afforded. Upon thinking deeply, I came up with a few adaptive strategies:  Continue our mission to build high organic matter soils with permanent sod, grazing animals and water holding conservation practices; have multi-use equipment and buildings; be financially prudent and minimize debt; be community minded and work diligently to support and inspire the next generations on the land.

In my mind the future is strongest when we have a vibrant, diverse ecosystem, a strong financial position, adaptable infrastructure and someone to steward and manage all the resources. Without healthy soil and a self-reliant healthy farm family, I feel we will not be able to weather any future storms.

This is my answer. Have you thought about your answer?