When climate-related weather events damage crops, what options do farmers have?

In recent years, an increase in extreme weather events makes this a particularly difficult time to be a farmer. Historically, crop insurance and disaster relief programs have been instrumental in protecting farmers against financial loss from natural causes. But some argue that the federal crop insurance program does not encourage farmers to adapt. Recent research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has highlighted this issue, emphasizing that adaptation will be key to responding to long-term climate change.

The role of emergency relief

Many specialty crops – a technical label that includes fruits, vegetables and other non-grain crops – are not eligible for USDA crop insurance. For farmers without federally subsidized USDA crop insurance, the losses can be catastrophic. In the summer of 2021, some raspberry and blackberry growers in Oregon suffered a disastrous season, with significant crop losses when temperatures reached record highs in June. Darcy Kochis of the Oregon Raspberry & Blackberry Commission was among those working to secure support for growers facing extreme losses. After the worst of the heat, the Commission began contacting the state government. “We brought people to the fields,” Kochis says. Representatives saw the damage firsthand, and after much work, the Disaster Assistance program for crops affected by extreme weather conditions was put in place. The program is structured as a forgivable loan.

Oregon’s Disaster Assistance Program fills gaps in federal disaster programs and, after an extraordinary season, it was a boon for farmers. But even if the plants survived, cautious optimism for this year might be overdone. “You can never be sure,” Kochis says. “You can never be sure that the year is going to be great, because last year 50% of the crop was burned at the last minute.

While disaster relief programs can help growers survive a particularly difficult season, they are less helpful in a future when weather-related disruptions become more common. This is where other adaptations come in.

Adaptation and resilience strategies

Switching to different varieties could be a long-term solution for some field farmers. “There are varieties that are drought tolerant, on the other side there are varieties of corn and soybeans that do better in wetter soils,” says Anne Schechinger, director of EWG Midwest, although it recognizes that replacing crops with alternatives is trickier. “In the maize belt, farmers really have all their equipment set up for one or two crops,” she says.

For perennial crop farmers — like Oregon berry growers — switching strategies can be an even more complex and time-consuming undertaking.

Higher summer temperatures in the Pacific Northwest may become a trend, and research is underway to develop new varieties of berries, some of which may prove more heat tolerant. For example, the Columbia Star blackberry is one of the newer varieties and it appears to be less susceptible to ultraviolet radiation and heat damage. But Kochis says these longer-term solutions are very slow to materialize. “The breeding program has to do on-farm trials, they have to do variety selection,” she says. This is a process that can take years. Meanwhile, the weather berry growers have to contend with could become increasingly erratic.

Andrew Byers is chief cider house and co-owner of Finnriver Farm and Cidery, which grows its own apples on 80 acres of certified organic farmland on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. He explains that they have started making changes to the way they farm, keeping the long-term water forecast in mind. “It kind of got us to look at the fragility of high-density monoculture,” Byers says. The farm is moving away from high yielding dwarf trees in favor of taller trees with deeper roots. “We frame them as resilience strategies,” says Byers. He explains that tall trees will be much better equipped to survive heat events. “They’re much more likely to be able to tap into groundwater on their own terms,” ​​he says. “They will need less irrigation.”

While the Finnriver team is already working towards a more robust orchard based on long-term plans, it could be difficult for farmers who react directly to weather events to make changes in the weather, while dealing with more frequent disastrous harvests.

Survival alone is not enough

Even with coping strategies, agriculture in some areas could need a major overhaul. In cases where land and resources have become significantly stressed, some environmentalists believe it no longer makes sense to grow certain crops in areas where they were previously grown.

In regions where resources such as water are scarce, existing crops must be grown differently, and scientists strive to provide information that will help farmers make critical decisions. For example, at UC Davis, the “Torture Orchard” project is designed to find improved genetics for farmers. The team tested the resistance of pistachio and walnut rootstocks to “torture” by placing them under drought stress. Although none of the pistachio trees died, as Associate Professor Pat Brown points out, “just surviving is not enough. What we really need to look at is how much food we can produce with water limitations. .”

The western United States is currently experiencing a multi-year drought that is the widest and most intense in the 22-year history of the US Drought Monitor. What you have to consider in California, says Brown, is the economic value of the crops versus the water applied. Sometimes it’s a bad deal. Brown points out that in Sicily, farmers can grow pistachios with ten times less water than in California. “They don’t get 10% of the return, they get 50% of the return,” he says. “They are five times more efficient in terms of water use.” Asking California farmers to try to use less water could be difficult. “It’s always hard to convince someone to do something that might impact their livelihood,” Brown says, but adds that it’s clear what’s brewing in terms of California’s water throttling. . “It could be that in the not-too-distant future they won’t have a choice whether or not to reduce the water,” he says. “There won’t be enough water for everyone.”

Growers across the country are heeding this harsh new climate reality. Byers mentions a currant farm in Oregon that supplies additional products to his cider house; it was nearly burned down by forest fires two years ago and its harvest was cut in half last year due to heat damage. “It certainly seems unstable,” he says. “If I had to make a climate-inspired decision on what to grow, I would choose to put things that are more adaptable, which means less commitment and easier to change. And I don’t know if those would be trees.”

Removing Barriers to Climate Adaptation

When resources are overstretched or disasters become too frequent, some agronomists believe it no longer makes sense to grow certain crops in areas where they were previously grown. But even when culture change becomes a financial and environmental necessity, it can be financially and culturally challenging. Overcoming these barriers may require adopting policies that help farmers manage this potentially costly transition.

But some existing crop insurance policies could be an obstacle to this change. Schechinger points out that crop insurance could encourage farmers to continue planting crops in areas where they are increasingly unsuitable, by financially protecting farmers from rising rates of crop failure. “We know that crop insurance impacts the crops farmers plant,” Schechinger says. “It’s really, really important to adjust crop insurance so that it helps farmers adapt to climate change.”

EWG crop insurance data shows that between 1995 and 2020, $143.5 billion in federal crop insurance payments were made to farmers, and the majority of the payments were for crop damage due drought and excess humidity, two factors that have worsened as a result of the climate emergency. In his research, Schechinger points out that when a crop is primarily covered by crop insurance, farmers often lack sufficient incentive to adopt adaptive practices. Reducing premium subsidies for the most at-risk farmers could encourage a drop in production, she argues, pointing out that the savings could be used to help farmers retire farmland permanently.

Schechinger also points out that conservation practices will be essential in the longer term. Reduced tillage in drought areas means the soil doesn’t get as hot, and cover crops planted during the winter season can be a big help. “It’s really good for more rain and less rain,” Schechinger points out. “It boosts soil health, it keeps soil compaction from getting worse. It will contribute to great climate variability in the future.”

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