Rising temperatures are turning farming into a high-wire tightrope act. In a hotter, drier, more volatile world, growers have little room to make mistakes, and agricultural know-how is quickly becoming a prized commodity.
For farmers, the challenge is clear. Crops thrive in a placid climate. Weather can’t be too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. Like Goldilocks, a tomato plant needs everything to be just right. Carbon pollution is shrinking the number of acres and the number of days with the ideal set of conditions.
Searing heat will desiccate soil and wither crops. Torrential rains will drown seedlings. Hotter weather will spur the spread of pests and disease. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide will fuel the growth of weeds, and scorching summers will shorten the time plants have to grow and mature. The climate is changing faster than crops can adapt, threatening to take a heavy toll on farmers, particularly in the warmest parts of the planet.
“A healthy agriculture is not just about the crops, but also the choices farmers make to manage them.”
According to the National Climate Assessment, U.S. farmers will be able to keep up with the rising temperatures in the near-term with small changes, like diversifying crops, improving irrigation and integrating livestock to improve the health and sustainability of farms. In the long-term, authors write, “existing adaptive technologies will likely not be sufficient to buffer the impacts of climate change without significant impacts to domestic producers, consumers, or both.” Farmers will need to get smarter.
“No matter what comes of climate policy, we’ve locked in climate change over the next 20 to 30 years. The weather farmers face will be different from what’s come before,” said Avery Cohn, Director of the Agriculture, Forests, & Biodiversity Program at Tufts University. “A healthy agriculture is not just about the crops, but also the choices farmers make to manage them.”
Experts say farmers need reliable information about crops, pests and precipitation to understand where to farm, when to plant and how much to diversify their crops.
“I think farming definitely does become riskier because changes in weather become more difficult to predict.”
Meha Jain, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, said farmers in India look to early indicators of the coming monsoon season for guidance, planting water-thrifty crops if they expect less rainfall. Climate change will make weather more variable and make decisions about planting more challenging. Facing limited resources — extended drought and meager supplies of groundwater — small growers may choose to lay down their plowshares.
“I think farming definitely does become riskier because changes in weather become more difficult to predict,” said Jain. “It might be that farmers decide to not even pursue agriculture in the long-term.”
Experts say our food will increasingly come from bigger farms armed with the latest tech. Agriculture is already becoming more knowledge-intensive as farmers look to conserve resources and take advantage of shifting weather patterns. Farms are growing bigger and more specialized. Supply chains are getting longer.
“So how does the farmers’ day to day routine differ in 2040? I would guess that decisions will trend towards moneyball and away from gut reaction.”
“What does this mean for the day to day farm operations? My guess is that you will see a continued trend towards larger farms, which may have more power to invest in increasingly sophisticated machinery and analytics,” said Peter Richards, an economic advisor for the Bureau of Food Security at USAID. “I’m not expecting that tractors will all be driving themselves in 30 years, but I do expect that smart agricultural practices will continue to develop and be honed and lead to a new generation of yield increases.”
Richards explained that while fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have multiplied crop yields in recent years, the next great agricultural advance won’t come in a can. It will come in a computer. Data analytics could give farmers an edge in a changing climate.
“So how does the farmers’ day to day routine differ in 2040? I would guess that decisions will trend towards moneyball and away from gut reaction,” said Richards. “What I think will be more interesting, is the extent to which farm decisions will essentially be set pre-planting, then run through an autopilot system… or whether farm decisions will become increasingly dynamic and flexible, with tremendous capacity to adjust strategies even within the planting season.”
What is certain is that a little knowledge goes a long way. Facing an increasingly volatile climate, a farmer’s most valuable tool may be her brain.
Jeremy Deaton writes about climate and energy for Nexus Media. Tweet him your questions at @deaton_jeremy.