Food and Farm Conference Confronts Challenges Posed by Climate Change

Colonial Revival stone barn at Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY, one of the oldest rural life museums in the country

Dr. Laura Lengnick, keynote speaker at Food & Farm conference and author of Resilient Agriculture

Dr. Michael Hoffman, Cornell professor who researches “pest biology & ecology in vegetable crop systems”

For its third annual conference in its Celebration of Our Agricultural Community series, the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown (Otsego County in upstate New York) addressed Climate Change and Its Impact on Farming in Central New York. The bad news, of course, is that we are on an irrevocable path to an ever-greater crisis, a crisis that will be aggravated by unscientific responses to climate change likely to be embraced by the new political administration in Washington. The good news is that central New York – as with much of the northeast – won’t initially be as badly affected as the rest of the country, and already has made strides to address these problems.

“The experience of climate change is different in different parts of the country,” said Dr. Laura Lengnick, the keynote speaker at the all-day event held earlier this month. It’s not changing the weather the same amount in all parts of the United States. She noted that the frost-free season length has increased in the northeast by ten days, while the southwest has gained nearly twenty. “The growing season is increasing, but pests are also increasing,” she added. “Dormancy in plants is changing. So is the level of heat stress on both plants and humans.”

Lengnick has spent over three decades as a researcher and educator – and, not incidentally, a farmer. She spent ten years leading the sustainable agriculture program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina, which she left to found the firm Cultivating Resilience to offer planning services to communities, businesses, and government. She’s also the author of Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate (New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, 2015).

“We as a species have never had to deal with a challenge like this,” she said. “We’re an adaptable species, which gives us hope – but the changes we’re facing may be the most dramatic we’ve ever seen. One source of hope is that we’ve spent the last forty years building a foundation of ecologically sound sustainable agriculture, tying it in with local economies.”

Asked how to deal with people who question climate change, she emphasize how much human beings love stories. “Sharing stories is how we make sense of things. Beliefs are far more easily changed through stories than with facts. Finding common ground, where values are shared, is the way forward. The stories have to be localized, personalized.”

Dr. Jason Evans addressed the issues from a policy angle. “Environmental damage is an external cost of production and consumption,” he said, “and when producers don’t take this kind of thing into account – as they won’t – they’ll overproduce. And that’s a waste of resources.”

Based at SUNY Cobleskill, the West Virginia native teaches courses in agricultural economics, agricultural policy, marketing, sales, and quantitative methods. He demonstrated the need and cost, undergirding policy decisions, by asking how many in the crowded conference room would pay a dollar a year to keep a polar bear alive. All hands, it appeared, went up – but as the annual price went up, the hands went down. “It’s hard to calculate value when you’re attaching that value to a feel-good concept.”

What does good policy look like? A Powerpoint slide gave some examples: It addresses the cause of the problem, leads to a more efficient allocation of resources, and exemplifies the most cost-effective approach. “But even without policy,” he said, “pure economics and better information will lead farmers to adopt better ecological practices.”

Drilling down to specifics, Dr. Todd Walter pointed out that in addition to getting warmer, we’re getting wetter. “And we have more extreme precipitation,” he said. But it doesn’t necessarily serve us when we need it, as the recent headlines-prompting droughts have shown. Thus, drought resilience is becoming another climate-change challenge.

Walter is director of Biological and Environmental Engineering at Cornell, and is able to turn theories into experiments, as in the work he’s doing with cover crops to stave off the effects of droughts and heavy rains, as well as enriching the soil. “We have opportunities to reimagine the system as a whole, and with that the potential for more positive solutions. For example, we have to look at more diversity of farming as a way of spreading the potential for risk, which can only be examined as part of a whole system.”

The conference’s afternoon session kicked off with a more comprehensive look at the science of climate change. Dr. Michael Hoffman, executive director of Cornell’s Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, emphasized the need for greenhouse gases, but showed some sobering slides describing the soaring measure of excess and its fallout.

Our temperature average has increased a degree and a half Fahrenheit, making it warmer at the poles. “Glaciers worldwide are retreating. The acidification of the oceans and the rise in sea levels are already having disastrous effects.”

With scientific analysis come reasonable prognoses, but the topic of climate change brings none of a reassuring nature. A mega-drought is so called when it lasts at least 35 years, “and there’s a 99 percent probability of a mega-drought in the southwest before 2100,” Hoffman assured us. “It’s no longer business as usual. With more variability comes more risk, and local impacts have global consequences.”

Meeting these challenges, he said, will require more resilient crops, which even now are being studied through the use of drones that can record the height, reflectiveness, and starch content of plants in a field, along with renewable energy sources and other sophisticated tools – a number of which can be found at including calculators for Growing Degree Days, Water Deficit, and Nitrogen Management.

“In general terms,” he concluded, “local is better, but even lettuce coming here by rail from California has a relatively small footprint. And – you won’t like this – try to eat less meat.”

The finish of the conference became much more technical, offering practical advice for the farmers among the crowd. Lengnick returned with strategic approaches to managing climate risk, dividing it into three basic strategies: resistance, resilience, and transformation. Resistance calls for using financial and physical assets to reduce exposure risks, while the more potentially successful resilience practices include a diversification of production and better management of a farm’s ecosystem processes. Transformation, the most radical, includes moving from annuals to perennials or, at least, inter-cropping them, and moving from a concentrated animal feeding operation to a more integrated approach that includes pasture-based and even multi-species grazing.

“All of it is completely do-able,” she said. “It’s already being done all over the country, and it’s being done in some way or other with all the types of food we eat.” Lengnick’s book, Resilient Agriculture, is the result of time she spent with over two dozen farmers around the country, “farmers who made changes on their own, with no government help, but wth their own supportives families to depend on.” It’s that combination of science and local innovation that’s going to save us in the years ahead.

(B.A. Nilsson 11/11/16)

[Editor’s Note (FWB): We previously reported on food activist and writer Mark Bittman’s appearance last year at the State University of New York at Albany’s Writers Institute where he noted that success for him would be to get every American to eat rice and beans at least once a week. A goal that comports with Dr. Michael Hoffman’s suggestion to “try to eat less meat.”]


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