Adaptive capacity helps farmers manage extreme weather


How can farmers adapt to changing weather and the impact it has on their farms?

The ability to modify and reshape the farm to reflect a changing climate will be greatly impacted by land and soil type, location and farming practices, says Ohio State University climate researcher Dr. Aaron Wilson. He believes a key success factor for many farmers will be their adaptive capacity — the ability to build or maintain resilient systems that can withstand extremes.

In his presentation last week at the Ontario Certified Crop Advisor annual meeting in London, Ont., Wilson shared how Ontario weather has changed over a period stretching from 1948 to 2016. Overall, average temperature has increased 1.3 degrees C, but winter is warming faster, upwards of two degrees C over that period. “It might not sound like a lot, but we’re talking about long-term averages over a long period of time. And certainly those changes that we’ve seen are enough to impact agriculture across the province.”

Wilson says the impact of the changing climate can be see throughout the growing season.”I think a good way to do it is to think about the agricultural production cycle. Then think about those trends that are happening locally… for instance, more spring rain means it’s a little harder to plant.” Overall, he notes that farmers are seeing their work windows shrink and that makes it tougher to get field work done.

Increasing extremes of weather are also challenging. “One of the things that we’ve seen creeping in from the south here are more rapid oscillations toward drier conditions during the growing season,” adds Wilson.  “Even in years, where we can have a surplus of rainfall, a surplus of precipitation, we could still have those short, intense drought periods. And of course, if you don’t have the rain at the right time, then you’re not going to get your grain fill.”

Wetter falls also create challenges for harvest and establishing cover crops. Wilson says that problems pile up when weather changes are observed across all seasons. Warming winters can create opportunities for more pest pressure and disease potential, and warm early spring weather swings can prove catastrophic for perennial crops that break dormancy, he notes. “These are all things to consider from a farming perspective, and the weather often doesn’t make it easy.”

In this interview with RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin, Wilson discusses how farmers’ ability to adapt will often depend on individual circumstances. “Every landowner is different,” says Wilson, noting that soil type, crop rotation, tillage and a host of farm practices will impact a farmers’s ability to manage and adapt to climate change. (Story continues after the interview.)

“If you think about adaptive capacity, how resilient is your system? Can it withstand these extremes? Do you have good quality soil that can perhaps help with water capacity and water storage? Or do you have a good program for weeds that’s really going to help combat the propensity for more weeds moving into the region?” notes Wilson. “That’s what we talk about in terms of adaptive capacity.

“How we measure the vulnerability at a particular location depends on both the potential impacts and the adaptive capacity there at the local level,” he adds.

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