What do you do when you’ve made major investments of time and money to grow one of our nation’s most important crops used for food, feed, fiber and fuel and the weather has changed yet again?
That question was the primary focus of the Resilient Agriculture: Adapting to a Changing Climate conference held this week in Ames, Iowa. The conference was co-sponsored by the 25x’25 Alliance and the Climate and Corn-based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project—more commonly known as the Sustainable Corn Project. In its fourth-year, Sustainable Corn is a collaborative project among 10 Midwest land grant universities and USDA’s agricultural research service. Additional project funding comes through USDA-NIFA.
To say the three-day conference agenda was packed is an understatement. With well over 100 farmers in attendance along with an impressive group of “next generation”, read— young farmers—their laser sharp focus on climate adaptation and resiliency strategies, was palpable.
Corn farmers Fred Yoder, representing 25 x’25, and former National Corn Growers Association president Gary Niemeyer participated in and moderated panel discussions looking at conservation practices, nutrient management systems, equipment and technology advancements that enable resiliency, cloud computational tools for management and many other topics.
Still other farmers such as Ray Gaesser, President of the American Soybean Association, shared their needs and experiences as they adapt to weather extremes. Gaesser also shared the weather changes on his farm with Farm Journal’s AgWeb.
Keynote speaker Jerry Hatfield, who served as the lead author on the Agriculture sector report and the Midwest region report for the 2013 National Climate Assessment didn’t want to create a gloom and doom atmosphere when he shared information from those reports, he just set the stage on the new realities facing Midwestern farmers:
· In general, climate change will tend to amplify existing climate-related risks to people, ecosystems, and infrastructure in the Midwest .
· Direct effects of increased heat stress, flooding, drought, and late spring freezes on natural and managed ecosystems may be multiplied by changes in pests and disease prevalence, increased competition from non-native or opportunistic native species, ecosystem disturbances, land-use change, landscape fragmentation, atmospheric pollutants, and economic shocks such as crop failures or reduced yields due to extreme weather events.
· These added stresses, taken collectively, are projected to alter the ecosystem and socioeconomic patterns and processes in ways that most people in the region would consider detrimental. Pressures…that will be exacerbated by climate change.
· In 2011, 11 of the 14 U.S. weather-related disasters with damages of more than $1 billion affected the Midwest. Several types of extreme weather events have already increased in frequency and/or intensity due to climate change, and further increases are projected.
During an opening press conference USDA Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack spoke noting that “The future is likely to include rising temperatures that lengthen the growing season and potentially increase production, but also more extreme weather events and added pest and disease risks that could substantially reduce crop production.”
“With weather variability like we have had these past two years, it’s difficult to know when it’s time to plant corn. This and other changes we’re experiencing in climate patterns make it necessary to adopt management practices that provide the best results in all years,” Niemeyer said.
In recent years responding to shifting weather conditions of historic proportions has become a greater challenge. So what are farmers to do when they have made major resource investments in their crop and the weather changes again? In the end, agricultural producers across the country have to be nimble and adapt their management practices based on their knowledge, skills, experience, technology, available resources, and even their “gut feelings” when it comes to meeting the sustainability and resiliency goals.
Agriculture, dominated by corn production, contributed nearly five percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2012, corn was a $63 billion crop in 2013. Global demand for corn hasn’t leveled off. Farmers both need and want to find new ways to increase their output and remain resilient, yet decrease their environmental impact to ensure corn productivity in the future.
“The conditions facing Corn Belt growers are like a pendulum swinging on rapidly variable arc,” says Ernie Shea, 25x’25’s Project Coordinator. “Giving farmers, scientists and industry a place to meet and map out strategies to intensify production in a sustainable way, and to improve the resilience of their operations is critical.
For the 25 x ’25 Alliance listening carefully to What Farmers are Saying and seeing the leadership of farmers at the conference brings a much higher level of confidence that not only will the 25 x ’25 objectives be met; but the agriculture and forestry sectors will simultaneously be able to deliver high quality, near-term and cost effective solutions climate change challenges in decades ahead.