What are farmers to do about climate change?

Over the years, some New Hampshire farmers have shared with me how they see climate change hitting home because of milder winters.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) explains how climate change is expected to impact the environments that support agriculture in the Northeast. The report says the science supports the farmers’ observations: milder winters are already changing local ecosystems and environments in ways that are and will continue to impact farming.

A maple syrup producer provided me a bit more detail from composite notebooks stacked in his kitchen cabinet — diaries kept by his dad faithfully recording night and daytime temperatures and tapping dates, a tradition he continued. The records note upward trends of February temperatures and earlier tapping.

Winter traditionally is the single most productive time of the year to cut wood because loggers depend on frozen ground to support their heavy machinery. There is no way to make up two weeks of lost time caused by an early winter thaw. Omnipresent and fragrant in springtime the purple lilac now blooms a week earlier than it did in 1970, making our state flower another icon of warming in New Hampshire.

Some New Hampshire farmers are also noticing erratic weather patterns. According to the NCA4, over the past 60 years, extreme precipitation in the Northeast has increased 70% — more than in any other region of the country. In addition to getting wetter, heavy downpours are becoming more common in New Hampshire.

Scientists anticipate that a warmer, wetter New Hampshire will lead to lower yields of some cool-season crops as well as new pests, but wine grapes, peaches and melons will fare better.

At the recent annual meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, Shawn Jasper, New Hampshire’s Agriculture Commissioner, joined in unanimous support for a new policy recognizing the risks of climate change and asking for public and private resources to help farmers and producers adapt.

Jasper’s department has a limited budget, but farmers are nothing if not resilient, and are working with scientists and other institutions.

With different techniques, farmers can enhance farming resilience, improve water quality and capture carbon in the soil. The good news is, according to UNH Cooperative Extension, sustainable and regenerative farming practices such as zero-till, reduced-till, organic farming and cover crops have increased in recent years among New Hampshire farmers.

As part of a 2014 University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute case study, Dorn Cox of Tuckaway Farm explains, “We know how to put carbon back into the ground. It is about communicating the practices to people and getting them to value it.”

But here is a bigger problem than Commissioner Jasper’s budget. At a pancake breakfast in Plymouth, I listened to him cite archaic 1940s USDA research to dissuade the audience of human-induced climate change.

In interviews, he has previously acknowledged the existence of climate change but shifted to doubting the human contribution. His rhetoric is not dissimilar to that of Gov. Chris Sununu, who will not join leaders of other states in upholding the Paris climate agreement.

Preparing for the longer and warmer growing season will entail investment in different agricultural products that can thrive under these conditions. It will require limiting damage from pests that come with warmer seasons, from intense precipitation that can disrupt plantings and harvests, and from late winter or early spring Arctic cold outbreaks that can freeze the spring blossoms that arrive earlier and earlier.

Farmers are looking for new solutions as they increasingly feel the effects of our mounting climate crisis on traditional livelihoods. Provided farmers have the support of consumers, the scientific community and policymakers, they can lead the way to building even broader community resilience.

Last month I received an inspiring brochure created by 12-year-old Maielle Merriam of Epping, “Soil is the Climate Solution,” spotlighting local carbon capture solutions. The New Hampshire Department of Agriculture Markets and Food would do well to consider distributing Maielle’s brochure to our farmers.

Roger W. Stephenson of Stratham is the Northeast advocacy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Categories: Opinion