Future of the Valley’s agriculture

By Peter Westover Gazette Contributing Writer

Suppose your family has owned a maple sugar business for five generations or run an apple orchard or struggled to keep a dairy going. Then imagine learning that, within less than a generation, the climate of western Massachusetts will become something like South Carolina’s today. Is that good or bad news for you?

Studies of the climate record tell us change is already happening: Spring now arrives earlier, summers are hotter, storms are more violent, short-term droughts more frequent, and winters warmer, wetter and less snowy.

Farmers here face two questions as they ponder the future. How can they survive changes in weather patterns? And how can they do their part to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that are behind these potentially huge long-term climate changes? The news isn’t all bad, but the message is clear: Prepare to make changes in farming practices.

Adapting to climate change

You might think that warmer weather, longer frost-free seasons and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would mean better growing conditions for plants. It’s true that some crops will grow faster, but there will be stiffer competition from weeds (especially new invasives from the south), molds and insect pests.

If crop plants benefit by 10 to 15 percent and weeds benefit by 60 to 80 percent, you can guess the result. Farmers will have to use more herbicides or put more emphasis on non-chemical weed control measures. Either way, they could face increased production costs.

There are many twists to the picture. One prediction is that days hotter than 90 and 100 degrees will triple in frequency. If so, dairies will have trouble keeping cows cool without big investments in ventilation and possibly air conditioning—milk production can drop at least 20 percent when the temperature exceeds 90.

Although tomatoes may prefer warmer weather, even they can be hurt by temperatures that are too high, as what used to be seen as “unusually hot” temperatures increasingly become the new norm. Chickens and swine also suffer in abnormally hot weather.

Warmer winters

Warmer winters aren’t necessarily the boon we might think. When the cooler months aren’t as cold, frost damage in vineyards, for example, increases because the grapes don’t harden off enough to withstand the occasional deep freeze. As the hours of deep winter chill decrease, production of many varieties of apples goes down. And some insect populations may increase if they survive winter in greater numbers.

What does this mean to farmers? Knowing when and what to plant will become a guessing game instead of a science based on the historical record. They will be faced with a myriad of questions. Should they plant different varieties of corn or fruit or vegetables? Should they plant earlier? Should they invest in irrigation or in flood prevention? Will more frequent ice storms call for changes in maple sugaring practices? Agricultural extension offices and state and private farm agencies are working overtime to help farmers prepare for the inevitable—and uncertain—changes.

Reducing greenhouse gases

Even as they face the challenge of adapting to climate change, farmers can play a part in solving the problem: there are many meaningful steps they can take to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They can use less chemical nitrogen and reduce the amount of nitrous oxide—along with methane, a potent greenhouse gas—released into the air, which also reduces the huge amount of energy that goes into producing those chemicals. They can concentrate fertilizer in each row rather than broadcast it over whole fields, which is more economical and saves energy.

They can invest in more efficient greenhouses and heat both greenhouses and sugar maple evaporators with used vegetable oil. They can take advantage of state and federal subsidies that make it affordable to install windmills, photovoltaics, outdoor wood-fired boilers, improved insulation and other energy-saving efficiencies. They can band together to make on-farm biodiesel to power farm tractors and trucks. These are just a few of the options that some farmers are already implementing.

Here in the Pioneer Valley, the “buy local” movement helps our farmers save energy by minimizing refrigeration and cutting transportation costs. Membership-supported CSA (community supported agriculture) farms in the Valley get their products directly to members through on-farm pickups. Selling through farm stands and to local retailers also can cut energy use.

Climate change has already begun. How much change will occur in our region’s agriculture will depend not only on what happens on the international stage but on the ability of local farmers to adjust and contribute to long-term prevention.

Peter Westover, vice president of the Hitchcock Center board and former conservation director for the town of Amherst, is a partner in Conservation Works, LLC, and is a contractor with the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. This column is based in part on a conference on Climate Change and Pioneer Valley Agriculture in March 2009, which he helped organize.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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