Sunset over a Parsons, Kan., farm (matthileo/flickr)
There’s a lot of concern about what global warming will mean for the future of the planet. Farmers, though, are already adjusting to climate fluctuations.
Federal agriculture officials are getting advice from people like Gene Takle, the director of Iowa State University’s Climate Science Program. He says the most important factors in the changing climate so far are changes in rainfall and temperature.
“We’re seeing earlier planting going on and so the season is starting earlier,” Takle said.
Takle says some of those changes, like earlier spring and summer rains, actually benefit farming by recharging soil moisture and increasing yields. That makes it harder to know whether record corn crops are the result of climate change or better seed genetics.
Climate change on the farm
Gene Takle, the director of Iowa State University’s Climate Science Program, studies the changing climate and its impact on farmers.
Listen to Iowa Public Radio's Sarah McCammon interview Takle:
“We haven’t had the serious droughts since 1988 and so we don’t really know if the improvements in drought tolerance are going to be significantly better when we come to a really severe test,” Takle said.
This year has started out drier than average, so it may be a good test for the effectiveness of crop genetics, Takle said.
But there are downsides, of course. An overall trend toward more spring rain also can make it harder for farmers to get into their fields in the spring. And warmer nights can reduce the quality of some grains, like wheat.
Takle says the effects of climate change vary from region to region and even from year to year. The Midwest is especially dependent on weather patterns in the Gulf of Mexico for rain and Takle says it’s difficult to predict how those patterns will shift.
“In the short-term what we’re seeing is that climate is already becoming much more variable,” Takle said.
Depending on how it’s done, Takle says agriculture can contribute to climate change or help to curb it.
“The job of a corn plant is to take as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it can. And that’s a good thing,” Takle said. “But also, of course, it takes a lot of fossil fuels to produce a crop.”
Takle suggests looking for ways to improve efficiency and capture more carbon in the soil.
Last week, Takle met with U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other officials to present what he’s seeing from the fields. He says farmers and policymakers should both take steps to reduce global warming and to adapt to changes that result from it – like making land more resistant to erosion.