Earlier this week, I met an older farm neighbor in a local restaurant. We chatted about the
winter weather (of course) and then he said, “You know down on the cove, we used to go skating nearly every year. Now it only freezes enough to walk on it once a decade or so.” It is hard to find a farmer who has worked the same land for decades who won’t tell you that the winters are warmer and the summers are hotter.
A 2013 USDA report, Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States: Effects and Adaptation, backs up that observation, saying that the “Long-term temperature records from ice sheets, glaciers, lake sediments, corals, tree rings, and historical documents demonstrate that every decade in the late 20th century has been warmer than the preceding decades.”
Changes that the USDA have documented across the globe include the following: sea level rise is increasing more rapidly, heavy precipitation events are increasing, winter temperatures have increased more rapidly than summer temperatures, nighttime minimum temps have warmed more rapidly than the daytime highs, and the observed number of record high temperatures is about three times higher than the number of record cold events.
The report also indicates that different regions will not be impacted in the same manor by climate change. Some areas will grow hotter faster. Some areas will become drier. For example the Northwest region of the U.S. may see 15-25% less rain in the summer months, while the north central and eastern regions may see an increase of 5-15% rainfall in the summer months. More rain events are likely to come with heavy rainfall and the likelihood of erosion.
How about Maryland?
According to the report, temperature increases in Maryland may be somewhat attenuated by
proximity to the Atlantic. However, the growing season is likely to continue to grow longer, by roughly 30 days. The number of frost days will decrease by approximately the same amount.
The change in the number of consecutive dry days along the east coast is not projected to change (see Figure 3). That is not the case in the West or in Texas, which could see the number of consecutive dry days increase by roughly 10 to 20 days.
How should farmers react to climate change?
A main message in the report is that farmer adaptation to weather conditions will be a key to the future success of farmers. Agriculture is dependent on many eco-system processes, including soil quality, water quality and quantity, weather events, etc. The predicted higher incidence of extreme weather events could mean more years of crop failures. Farmers will need to factor resilience into their business planning and protect the quality of their soils.
The report notes that agriculture has done an amazing job of adapting to change in the last 150 years. It is likely to change even more in the next 150 years. The east coast may not suffer the same level of impacts, but weather prognostication is not an exact science.
However, as the world population increases and climate change limits production capacity, there will no doubt be a need for healthy food sources. Farmers who adapt and maintain good soil health, infrastructure, and business planning should have a market for their goods.