President Obama announced at the United Nations Climate Summit last Tuesday that part of the U.S. action plan on climate change will focus on the U.S. agriculture industry.
If current population trends continue, farmers around the world will have to feed another 2 billion mouths in the next few decades. At the same time, climate change threatens crop yields, meaning there might be less food to fill the growing population.
It raises the question: How can farmers farm smarter?
To help answer this question, the United States signed on as a founding member of the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, a group of governments, businesses and farm organizations that will share information about best-practices for farming in a world with a shifting climate.
The organization says it wants to create “a space for those who work on climate-smart practices to share documents, exchange information and views on what works and what doesn't when adapting to climate change.”
Obama also wants to lean on seven recently created USDA Regional Climate Hubs to create similar spaces for farmers in the United States. Launched in February, each hub is based in a different agricultural region of the country.
Jerry Hatfield, director for the Midwest Climate Hub, says preparing for the consequences of climate change isn’t something farmers in the Midwest can put off until 2030 or 2040.
“Some of the extreme weather patterns that we’ve had, I don’t expect that to decrease any,” Hatfield said. “So, it really is here right now.”
There are many examples of how climate change is impacting Midwest farmers. Take the rain, Hatfield says. In 2012 there wasn’t enough, while 2013 brought heavy spring rains in some regions. And 2014 was fraught with severe storms in many areas.
According to Hatfield, each one of these weather extremes creates a set of other problems down the road.
For example, heavy spring rains can lead to more soil erosion.
“We also see that because we have more saturated soils, we have a decrease in the number of workable field days, which translates to delays in planting,” Hatfield said. “So farmers aren’t able to plant their crop as efficiently [or] put on fertilizers and herbicides in the most effective manner.”
All of these factors impact corn and soybean production, the region’s dominant crops. As well as alfalfa, wheat, and the vegetables grown in the eastern part of the Midwest.
According to Hatfield, the Climate Hub is still in the process of developing specific programs to help farmers cope with a changing climate. One program they’ve been focusing on is designed to help farmers improve the health of their soil so that it can be more drought tolerant.