Adapting to change in the Rural South

Here in the South, farming and forestry are major contributors to our economy. Farmers and foresters face new challenges from the effects of changing weather and climate. In the rural South, we have seen these effects first hand. We now have longer and more intense droughts, and unusually milder winters are interrupted by more severe ice and snow storms. Memories of gentle rains are overcome by much more common and sudden “frog choker” downpours.

DRY AS A BONE--November 26, 2012: A "Slow No Wake," sign is shown far from the water due to low water levels on Lake Lanier at Mary Alice Park, Cumming, GA. Photo credit Jason Getz, Atlanta Journal Constitution.

All of these changes have domino effects: Droughts harm crops and make trees more vulnerable to wildfire, disease, and insects; warmer winters help diseases and pests to proliferate; winter storms damage crops and trees; sudden severe rainfall tends to erode soil and rapidly drain into creeks and rivers; and whereas slower gentler rains replenish underground aquifers the hard rains that we’ve been experiencing don’t benefit crops or forests as much as gentle rains.

Forget about the debate over the causes of climate change — the impacts of these environmental changes need to be addressed now in order for agriculture and forestry to continue meeting the world’s growing demand for food, feed, fiber, shelter, and fuel.

As a result of this new reality, agriculture and forestry leaders are  engaging and investing in new activities to adapt to these changes and prepare for the future.

On February 5, USDA released two informative reports on the likely impacts of climate change on farming and forestry. These reports are the result of extensive deliberation by scientists and other leaders in agriculture and forestry, and so they represent a solid basis for farmers and forestland owners to plan for these changes.

Farmers and other participants discuss adaptation at the Feb 8, 2013 Farming Strategies in Today's Changing Climate event, Pittsboro, NC.

A local gathering of ~150 small, sustainable farmers was recently held in North Carolina titled, “Farming Strategies in Today’s Changing Climate” to discuss these issues, largely inspired by the USDA report. I was heartened by the sharing and collaboration among small farmers. Numerous practical tips and ideas were exchanged and recorded in the notes and videos. There was also much discussion of renewable energy and other ways to avoid contributing to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

Here I am discussing new opportunities, specifically biochar, for climate mitigation

But from where I sat, a dominant theme in the discussions was the handling, capture, and storage of rainfall to prevent flooding and avoid running out of water when it’s scarce.

Interestingly, folks in Texas are thinking along similar lines. At the end of March, members of the TX House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to fund $2 billion in water related investments. For a state often dominated by “supply-side” economic philosophy, it’s noteworthy because 20 percent of the funding will go towards water conservation measures. The most interesting point about Texas’ efforts is that this massive adaptation investment was passed without a single mention of the base cause (climate change).

That’s an underlying point to another new report on adaptation recommendations that was launched last week by the the 25x’25 Alliance. The effort was driven by the recognition that – regardless of its causes – climate change is already affecting us, and we need to plan and take action to adapt. The 25x’25 report was produced by an Adaptation Work Group composed of agriculture, forestry, business, academic, and conservation leaders. Over two years the group explored the impacts of a changing climate and developed recommendations on ways for producers, policymakers, and other stakeholders to adapt. The 25x’25 report is not intended to be an exhaustive list of recommended actions, but to stimulate more dialogue on the subject. The group is currently inviting readers to provide feedback on the report, and/or to share stories of the changes you are seeing on your land and how you are adapting, click here. A webinar will be offered on April 17, noon to 1:30 ET.

Adaptation is a lot to think about, but there’s no doubt that planning is vital to the future of farming and forestry.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890 – 1969)

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