Climate change, no matter the cause, is real.
"We really have to get past talking about what is causing it and agree that we need mitigation and adaptation strategies," says Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association. "In the end it doesn't matter one bit if it's a natural cycle or a man-made problem. We have to deal with it."
Bill Hohenstein, director of the USDA climate change program, says the scientific evidence that links increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with increasing temperatures is conclusive.
"We are seeing evidence of the changing climate in the last decade or more with the last 14 or 15 years being the warmest on record," he says. "The thing we are seeing is that farmers are already adapting to this change; the challenge we face is an accelerating rate of change that makes it harder and harder to adapt."
Hohenstein says the U.S. will see more droughts, more floods and more erratic weather, such as the extremely warm November and December experienced in many parts of the country last year, followed by the wintry weather many regions experienced this spring.
For crops, farmers can expect a positive effect in longer growing seasons and the ability to grow more crops in areas where it was previously too cold.
However, these positives are likely to be offset by more extreme heat such as the 56 days of 100-degree-plus heat Kansas experienced in 2011 and the extreme drought that robbed yields across most of farm country in 2012.
Stresses to come
Farmers can expect more heat and drought stress on crops such as soybeans and corn and water stress and late-season frost on wheat and small grains, Hohenstein says.
Warmer winters will also mean more insects and more weeds as higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere spur more plant growth and vigor across a wide range of weeds.
Ernie Shea, spokesperson for renewable fuel alliance 25x'25, says the organization is committed to making biofuels and other renewable energy sources supply 25% of the energy for America by the year 2025.
"It has been critical that we concentrate on reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses we are putting into the air," he says.
Lois Wright-Morton, a sociologist at Iowa State University, says the biggest challenge of all may come in the realm of communications.
"It is absolutely essential to get the message to farmers and ranchers that climate change is real and picking up speed," she says. "We need to help them get sound scientific advice about how to adapt to the consequences. We need to educate ag and forestry leaders on impacts and mobilize producers to advocate for taking action to adapt to change and mitigate the damage."
She acknowledged that farmers have already make adaptations to changing climate with moving to more no-till farming, more cover crops for plant diversity and soil health, and changing cropping practices to grow more drought tolerant crops.
"All of these have helped," she says. But she agreed with Shea that the pace of climate change, which appears to be accelerating, could make it harder and harder for farmers to have time to adapt.
"We are going to see the need for better water management systems to help take advantage of extreme rainfall events to store water for future drought," she says. "We will need the contribution of better genetics, better risk management, better infrastructure to handle extreme events including flooding and heat waves, and finally, improved long-range forecasting to help farmers to be prepared for extreme events."
- Griekspoor writes for sister publication Kansas Farmer