Not only will farmers be impacted by a changing climate, the way they tend the land can help mitigate changes
If you talk to a farmer, many will tell you that they’ve noticed the weather is changing.
Alberta has always had erratic weather, but those working the soil or raising a herd — whether for years, or decades — are getting more curveballs thrown at them each year. From increased wind, rain at harvest, intense snowstorms during calving and hot summer days that bring drought, farmers are being forced to adapt.
The Prairie Climate Centre’s own models agree that things are getting hotter, and project a spike in plus 30 C days for the prairies in the coming decades.
That sort of spike would be bad news for Alberta farmers and mean many will have to adapt to new realities and do their part to stem the tide of climate change – a potentially charged subject in conservative farming circles. But it’s a conversation that’s starting to happen in fields and towns across the province
The kind of change needed to tackle future challenges is exactly what the National Farmers Union is calling for in its report released this December. It says old-fashioned mixed farming combined with new technology can reduce greenhouse gases. The group is also urging farmers to move away from big-money, big-acreage and big-machine farming that can bring big debt.
“If regenerative agriculture exists, it is likely found in mixed-farming systems that utilize natural nutrient cycles, diverse animal and plant mixes and best-possible grazing methods to restore soils, raise carbon levels, protect water, enhance biodiversity and support sustainable livelihoods,” the report reads.
While it might seem like a daunting task for farmers, the good news is work has already started on what farmers can do to prepare and help stem the tide of climate change.
Farms can ‘heal the land’
Jerremie Clyde, splits his time between his mixed farm near Sundre and his city job in Calgary.
He and his family rotate crops each year, planting a wide variety, like potatoes, rye and oats. They raise yaks over cows because the animals have less environmental impact, including how much water and food the shaggy Himalayan beasts consume. Yaks have also been said to create less methane emissions, something of a beef for many environmentalists.
Jerremie Clyde helps run a mixed-use farm with his family near Sundre, Alta., while still working as a librarian at the University of Calgary. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
“It tastes just like beef. I would say slightly better than beef,” said Clyde about the lean meat.
His company, Little Loaves Farm, sells its bounty to nearby markets, connecting with neighbours over the love of good food. They also hope to sell their meat directly to consumers online.
“Farms have a huge potential to heal the land,” said Clyde. “Like, depending how you farm, you can radically increase biodiversity of both plants and animals, wild and domestic, and that doesn’t have to get in the way of what you’re raising commercially for sale.”
Clyde encourages other farmers seeking low capital solutions to think of farming as a research activity. For example, taking care of the soil can act as a carbon sink and can help keep the land’s water table healthy, creating biodiversity and could even reintroduce wildlife back into that area.
He says there are also agencies out there offering grants for alternative land uses to help farmers pay for fencing or water to repair riparian areas, for example.
Yaks are becoming more commonplace in Alberta fields, better known for cattle grazing. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)
“Farmers are in a real trap. If you have a ton of debt doing something new is pretty scary because it might not work. A lot of the organic stuff, it doesn’t work right away. You have to learn it. You have to learn how it’s going to work on your site,” he said.
“So you can expect a few years of it not going well. Eventually you might get higher yields than you would have elsewise. But it won’t be immediate.”
Climate change is an important conversation, says Amber Bennett with Climate Outreach.
Bennet is compiling data from the Alberta Narrative Projects, which is trying to find language that brings people together to talk about what’s happening.
Last year it had dozens of conversations with focus groups of all different sectors, like farmers, oil and gas workers and even religious groups.
“People don’t feel invited to the conversation,” said Bennett, adding many times the debate is night and day when it comes to urban and rural perspectives.
“In some cases it’s quite dramatic.”
She said how we engage in the climate conversation is usually tied to our identity.
“People feel blamed and threatened,” she said, adding climate change can be a tough word because it’s so polarized.
She recommends asking farmers directly about the weather, then listening. There are serious issues, such as a consistent water supply, forest fire impacts on crops, securing our food supply and economic diversification so people can stay on the farm.
“All of our well-being is tied to what they are doing,” said Bennett.
Brenda Barritt with Rural Routes to Climate Solutions has a cattle, pig and chicken operation called Earth Works Farm near Alix, Alta.
“Seems like everything is more intense,” said Barritt who, along with her husband, tracks the weather day to day.
“We are getting wetter, warmer winters.”
She says rain is often coming at the wrong time. Her husband, Vance, notices the wind patterns have changed a lot since he was a child living on that piece of land east of Red Deer.
But Barritt says there’s also more information and more inspiration. She says before they had to look south of the border for environmental success, but that’s changed over the past decade. She hopes her group’s podcast can help spread those stories.
Brenda Barritt has been researching how she can make her land more sustainable, which she shares in a podcast presented by Rural Roads to Climate Solutions. (Monty Kruger/CBC)
“I think that’s also part of the narrative that can be amplified and needs to be amplified, is that there are agricultural practices out there that both benefit the farm and help us deal with potential uncertainty, but also are part of mitigating, to some extent, the impacts that we know are coming our way through climate change,” she said.
She says keeping healthy grasslands is imperative. A study published this November in Science Advances echoes that view.
Barritt says Canadians can support farmers by voting with their dollars and buying direct, while remembering the cost is often more because those local producers are footing the cost of storage, distribution and better land management.
“If I was to think of what can government do, I think it’s just really continuing to support that kind of research and maybe not getting in the way. But also amplifying and learning from it and know we don’t need to recreate the wheel,” said Barritt.
Jane Rabinowicz is with SeedChange, a charitable group that works with farmers to grow food sustainably with locally adapted seeds. She says how farmers adapt to a changing climate is important.
Her group works hand-in-hand with farmers in their fields and on policy to spread sustainable and climate resilient farming.
“The good news is that models of farming that are better for the planet are also better for the farmer’s bottom line,” said Rabinowicz.
The cost of farming can be high, and she says farmers are experiencing high debt. The average age of Canadian farmers is also over 55 and a new generation of farmers will need to have access to a decent livelihood.
Her group’s goal is to continue spreading information as more research becomes available, because she says folks are getting a bit of a mishmash of information and that’s creating fear. SeedChange is also helping to develop new varieties of climate resilient crops that are locally adapted.
Rabinowicz says there are also farm-based solutions, like growing more than one crop on the same field, better water management, wildlife corridors, soil conservation and watching what inputs – like nitrogen — are added to the soil.
“A big chunk of our greenhouse gases from agriculture come from the production and use of nitrogen inputs and so high-input farming is high-emissions farming. So any kind of practices that help decrease reliance on inputs are also going to be really helpful,” she said.
Rabinowicz agrees farmers can feel isolated and even blamed for their role in climate change. They might even worry what their neighbour will say if they change production practices. She agrees talking about the weather and its impact is a great way to get the conversation started.
“Farmers are and always have been on the front lines of the weather, right? And so, you know, farmers have always had to adapt their practices and farmers are the ones who are the stewards of the land and they’re out there observing changes very closely,” she said.
“So there have always been changes in climate as well that farmers have observed and they have been able to adapt their practices and adapt their crop over time as climates have changed. So I think it actually can be a useful way to talk about climate change with farmers.” SOURCE
The average Canadian family will pay $487 more for food next year, and the authors of the country’s annual food price report are pointing to climate change as a major cause of the increase.
“The forecast, driven in large part by climate change and continuing trade issues, outpaces the average food inflation rate over the past decade of about 2.0 to 2.5% a year,” the Globe and Mail reports. “Meat, fresh fruit, and vegetables are expected to jump the most in price. Meat, especially, is to be between 4.0 and 6% more expensive than 2019.”
“The report calls the impact of changing weather patterns on our food systems through droughts, forest fires, heavy precipitation, reduced freshwater access, and rising sea levels ‘the elephant in the room’ for 2020,” The Canadian Press reports, in a dispatch republished by CBC. “That link between climate change and food prices comes with a forecast that the average Canadian family will spend $12,667 on food at grocery stores and restaurants in 2020”—a 2-4% jump over 2019, and the second-largest increase ever.
“We’re deliberately pointing out that climate change is causing the droughts, is causing the bad snowstorms that [are] impacting prices,” said co-author Simon Somogyi, an agri-food business specialist at the University of Guelph.
“Canadian farmers will face challenges in the future dealing with unpredictable crop yields, heat wave livestock threats, pasture availability, and pest and disease outbreaks,” the report states.
Somogyi warned that climate change will continue to drive up prices without a shift in the country’s food system. “If we maintain our current Canadian food distribution structure, I can see that happening each year—4%, 10%, 15%,” he said. He’s calling for a national food policy that “focuses on producing more high-cost items, like many vegetables, in Canada through vertical and indoor farming,” CP writes. “That would reduce time to market, costs, and risks of bacterial outbreaks.”
The CP coverage traces a range of factors that influence food prices, but the report concluded that climate change was responsible for “the bulk” of last year’s sudden increase in vegetable costs. MORE
The recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that agriculture is responsible for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions. There’s hope—and a solution.
Agriculture is perfectly poised to play a major role in the solution to the climate crisis. By helping young farmers gain access to land, everyone can help play a role. Illustration by Jon Adams, courtesy of The Perennial Farming Initiative
All of us are familiar with conventional agriculture: the miles upon miles of farmland growing only one crop, the destructive tillage that wafts soil and its stored carbon into the air and into our waterways; the use of hundreds of chemicals including pesticides like chlorpyrifos that have been found to cause brain damage in children; the confined facilities that are both cruel to animals and make their impact on the Earth an assault rather than a gift.
I first started writing about [regenerative agriculture] farmers back in 2011, when there were more amazing anecdotes than studies, but that has changed. Entomologist and former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren published a study with his former student Claire LaCanne in 2018. The study followed 10 cornfields per farm on 20 farms over two growing seasons, half of which were regenerative and half conventional. The study tracked soil carbon, insect pests, corn yield, and profits.
The results give the imprimatur of science to the successes regenerative farmers have reported for years. Lundgren and LaCanne found that there were more pests in the conventional cornfields that were treated with insecticides and/or used GMO seeds than in the pesticide-free regenerative fields, presumably because the cover crops attracted battalions of predator insects that decimated crop pests—and because there were no insecticides to kill off those beneficials.
And while the regenerative farms used older, lower-yielding corn varieties without fertilizer and had lower yields, their overall profits were 78% higher than the conventional farmers’. Partly, this was because the regenerative farmers’ costs were so much lower, with no cash outlays for costly insecticides and GMO seeds. They also “stacked enterprises” and had two or more sources of income on the same acre—in this case, they grazed their cattle on corn residue after harvest and got a premium price for pastured beef. What was the primary factor correlating with farm profitability? The amount of carbon and organic matter in the farmers’ fields, not their yields.
The venerable soil scientist Rattan Lal was one of the first people to connect the loss of soil carbon caused by destructive farming to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In a 2018 interview with Soil4Climate, Lal said that he and his colleagues estimated that regenerating landscapes—farms, forests, coastlands, and so on—could restore up to 150 gigatons (a gigaton equals 1 billion tons) of carbon to the world’s soil in 80 years. All the extra vegetation grown to put that carbon in the soil would store 150–160 gigatons more, resulting in a terrestrial biosphere holding an additional 330 gigatons of carbon, equal to a drawdown of 150 to 160 parts per million of CO2 from the atmosphere. “We should encourage the policy makers that this process of restoring degraded soils and ecosystems is a win, win, win option,” Lal says. “It’s a bridge to the future.”
Several of the Democratic presidential hopefuls have added agriculture to their climate platforms—most notably Rep. Tim Ryan, who proposes policies to support regenerative agriculture and soil carbon sequestration. Just this week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren added to her climate platform a sweeping plan to overhaul agricultural policy, while Sen. Cory Booker announced he would propose the Climate Stewardship Act to the Senate in September; both would pay farmers for conservation practices.
And farmers of the future are ready to take it on.
“Agriculture is perfectly poised to play a major role in the solution to the climate crisis,” says Bilal Sarwari, membership and communications manager of the National Young Farmers Coalition. “By helping young farmers gain access to land, everyone can help play a role.” MORE
ANCIENT AMAZONIAN SOCIETIES MANAGED THE FOREST INTENSIVELY BUT SUSTAINABLY — HERE’S WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THEM
A worker fertilizes a field in Pereaux, N.S., on April 22, 2016. File photo by The Canadian Press/Andrew Vaughan
Canada will not be spared the impact of food shortages and price shocks if global warming is not kept below 2 degrees Celsius, a new report suggests.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is releasing a report today on the impacts farming, forestry and other uses of land have on climate change, as well as the impacts a warming planet will have on those industries.
Last fall, another report from the panel showed the planet had already warmed up almost 1 C compared to pre-industrial times.
The Paris climate change agreement is straining to keep global warming below 2 C and as close to 1.5 C as possible.
The latest report shows that if the planet’s temperature rises more than 2 C, there will be sustained disruptions in food supplies all around the world; warming between 1.5 C and 2 C will produce periodic food shocks.
Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, says the report is further proof of the tipping point the world faces if people do not do more to curb greenhouse gas emissions and slow the rate of global warming. SOURCE
The agency says the widely used chemical chlorpyrifos is an important tool for the nation’s farmers.
A foreman watches workers pick fruit in a California orchard in 2004. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)
The Environmental Protection Agency rejected a petition by environmental and public health groups Thursday to ban a widely used pesticide that has been linked to neurological damage in children, even though a federal court said last year there was “no justification” for such a decision.
In a notice to the Federal Register on Thursday, the agency wrote that “critical questions remained regarding the significance of the data” that suggests that chlorpyrifos causes neurological damage in young children. The agency said that the Obama administration’s decision to ban the product — used on more than 50 crops, including grapes, broccoli and strawberries — was based on epidemiological studies rather than direct tests on animals, which have historically been used by the EPA to determine a pesticide’s safety.
The EPA’s decision, which represented a win for industry, drew swift condemnation from groups that have pushed for years to remove the pesticide from the market.
“By allowing chlorpyrifos to stay in our fruits and vegetables, Trump’s EPA is breaking the law and neglecting the overwhelming scientific evidence that this pesticide harms children’s brains,” Patti Goldman, an attorney for the environmental law organization Earthjustice, said in a statement. “It is a tragedy that this administration sides with corporations instead of children’s health.” MORE
Todd Smith’s vanity project, the cancellation of the White Pines Wind Farm, came with unintended consequences. Beyond the $100 million lawsuit that Ontarian’s will end up paying, the loss of farm revenue necessary for sustainable agriculture, the loss of prospective commercial development fueled by cheap renewable energy, is the loss of good paying jobs in turbine construction and servicing.
Here is a chart that puts employment information into perspective.
Now, as Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, will he be mature enough to live up to his job description and reverse his decision on White Pines?
Farmer Tony Neale sits atop his electric tractor, which he charges using solar panels installed on his farm near Uxbridge in 2018. (MARCO CHOWN OVED / TORONTO STAR)
“It’s silent. There’s no exhaust. You can hear the birds and talk to people working in the fields. You can feel the wind on your face and smell the fresh country air.”
The tractors — which have the equivalent power of a 40 horsepower diesel engine — run for five to eight hours on a single charge and will eventually retail for around $40,000 (U.S.), which Neale says is a similar price tag to a new diesel tractor.
“But the operation is 10 times cheaper,” he said. “There are no fuel costs and little to no maintenance.” MORE
The first field trials using fungi to reduce carbon in the atmosphere are under way in Australia.
As carbon dioxide emissions increase in the atmosphere, scientists around the world are looking at solutions such as carbon sequestration. This process captures carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere for long-term storage.
Researcher Guy Webb from SoilQuest has fun with fungi, all in the name of science.
A group of Australian farmers is working with researchers to harness the power of fungi in soils. In the dry conditions of the Australian landscape, increasing soil carbon levels can help with water retention, boosting conditions for agriculture.
At the same time, by capturing carbon farmers can help contribute to addressing the problem of increasing greenhouse gases, climate change and global warming. MORE
One county moves toward full reliance on renewable energy
Oxford County has adopted plans to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 for eight municipalities within this mainly rural and heavily agricultural region.
In its plans to date, the county has not relied on provincial policies that the new PC government now questions, said Peter Crockett, Oxford County’s chief administrative officer, in a recent interview. County council’s renewable energy commitment is part of the strategic plan that the group adopted during the term that was completed in 2018.