A wild winter like the one we are experiencing makes us look forward to spring. But many of us — especially Maine’s farmers — will continue to worry about the severity of our next unusual weather. Even in the best circumstances, farming is a gamble. With the extreme, unpredictable weather in Maine during the past few years, the stakes have grown higher and the odds of success poorer. Increasingly, Maine farmers are reporting devastating crop losses — sometimes as much as 90 percent — from unseasonable temperature swings and erratic rainfall.
Farmers will have an opportunity to learn more about the agricultural impacts of climate change and strategies to deal with it on March 7, when the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, hosts it annual Spring Growth Conference, this year titled “Farming in the Face of Climate Change.”
Maine can be proud the number of young farmers here has grown dramatically faster than in the rest of the nation. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of farmers under the age of 34 in Maine grew by nearly 40 percent. But increasingly erratic and extreme weather has the potential to become one factor in reversing this positive trend. David Wolfe, chairman of the Cornell Climate Change Program Work Team, sums it up this way: “This is the first generation of farmers ever who can’t rely on the historical climate to inform them about how to manage their operations down the road. That’s a moving target now.”
With carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at a historic 400 parts per million high, the planet’s climate already differs dramatically from the relatively stable conditions of the last 10,000 years of human agriculture. University of Maine Climate Change Institute Professor Ivan Fernandez reports that in the last 100 years, Maine’s average temperature has increased by about 3 degrees Fahrenheit, leading to issues with pests and pathogens. Projected increases in average temperature by 2050 range from 3 to 5 degrees, depending on the climate zone. The Climate Change Institute’s just released 2015 update report on Maine’s Climate Future notes a significant change to Maine climate — a 50 to 100 percent increase in rainfall events with more than 2 inches per day in some regions.
Despite higher average precipitation, Fernandez noted that the more erratic rainfall means farmers need to supplement soil moisture with irrigation late in the growing season. Impacts of climate change elsewhere in the nation also affect some farmers in Maine. In 2013, Midwest drought meant higher grain prices. That hurt Maine dairy farmers and drove some out of business.
UMaine Cooperative Extension Associate Scientist Glen Koehler reports that heavier rains increase soil erosion and deplete nutrients. They also interfere with field access, which delays spring planting and hilling soil in potato rows to prevent sun-scald.
In January, MOFGA wrote to each member of Maine’s Congressional delegation and urged the following:
Support organic agriculture, which produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional agriculture, preserves biodiversity and sequesters large amounts of carbon dioxide through soil organic carbon.
Support the Environmental Protection Agency’s initiatives to rein in greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel production and use.
Enact legislation to place a cost on carbon in the marketplace and buffer market price increases by paying a dividend to people needing help to cover transportation and home heating costs.
Support global greenhouse gas emissions limits at United Nations treaty proceedings this December in Paris.
Farming in the “new normal” of our changing climate is increasingly risky business for farmers and others. Aggressive action to restrict carbon dioxide emissions is a necessary step toward reducing that risk and helping to ensure our food and farming future.
MOFGA’s Spring Growth Conference will take place at the Common Ground Education Center in Unity.
Ted Quaday, is executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. Sharon S. Tisher, is a lecturer in the School of Economics and the Honors College at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications.