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Climate Change and Agriculture in the Adirondacks

Wednesday, September 11, 2019
By Lizzie Fainberg - Essex Farm Institute Rural Law Fellow

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced globally and across the nation, climate leaders have been working toward identifying the prominent causes of, and potential solutions to, this international problem. Agriculture has long been identified as a major source of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. However, certain agricultural practices, such as cover cropping, sustainable forestry, and attention to soil health can help transform agriculture from part of the problem into part of the solution. Many farmers in the Adirondacks and across the region are left wondering how their operations will be affected by climate change and how they can prepare against potential threats from changing weather patterns. Here are the region’s biggest climate change concerns and what New York is doing to prepare the state’s agriculture industry for the future.

How Does Agriculture Contribute to Climate Change?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that agriculture, forestry, and associated land uses account for about 23% of human greenhouse gas emissions.In 2016, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimated that agriculture accounts for about 10% of human greenhouse gas emission in the U.S. In contrast, agriculture accounts for just 4% of human greenhouse gas emissions in New York State. But don’t let this small percentage fool you: this 4% accounts for about 5.3 million metric tons of emissions.

The most common ways that agriculture contributes to climate change are through fertilizer use, deforestation, and intensively raising grain-fed livestock. Nitrogen-heavy fertilizers release nitrous oxide (N2O) into the atmosphere, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Deforestation to make way for farmlands decreases the number of trees available to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Total greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock account for roughly 14.5% of total human greenhouse gas emissions globally, with beef and dairy cattle accounting for about 60% of the sector’s total. This is both due to the significant resources needed to feed and house livestock, as well as methane released from the animals and open manure storage. In New York state, greenhouse gas emissions from all livestock accounted for about 55% of emissions from the agricultural sector while agricultural soil management accounted for the remained 45%.

How Can We Expect Climate Change to Impact Adirondack Agriculture?

Farmers both across the nation and in New York have already begun to feel both positive and negative effects of climate change. Some of the central concerns in New York are increased temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increases in extreme weather events. At the same time, we can expect the growing season in northern New York to extend, offering milder winters and hotter summers. This has the potential to allow Adirondack farmers to increase their annual yields and to grow more crops suited to warmer weather. Annual average temperatures have increased in every region of the state since 1970. The effects of rising temperatures in the Adirondacks could also include increased pressure from pathogens, pests, and weeds; increased heat stress and disease for livestock; decreased apple production due to fewer winter chilling hours; and an earlier maple season. The effect of all these factors is mixed, but are all factors that can increase farmers’ operational expenses and decrease overall production.

While average precipitation in New York state has increased in recent years, precipitation in the summer has decreased. Simultaneously, precipitation in the form of heavy downpours has increased. If this trend continues, Adirondack farmers may have to increasingly rely on irrigation to maintain crop yields. According to the most recent USDA agriculture census, between 2012 and 2017 irrigated acres of farmland in the Adirondacks has already increased from roughly 1,928 acres to roughly 2,721 acres.

As precipitation and temperatures change in the New York region, extreme weather events such as flooding and heavy rains have become more common. Floodwaters can spread invasive plant species to new areas, further exacerbating weed pressures for farmers. Heavy rainfall and flooding can damage plants and farm structures, increase erosion of fertile soils, and jeopardize water resources. Overall, Adirondack farmers can expect changing weather patterns that will both present challenges and opportunities for agriculture in the region.

How Can Agriculture Become Part of the Solution?

Although agriculture is a significant contributor of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, there are farming practices that can mitigate the effects of climate change. This can help agriculture to transition from part of the problem to part of the solution. Climate-friendly practices include rotational grazing of livestock, covering manure piles to trap methane, carbon sequestration, and reducing synthetic fertilizer use.

In agriculture, carbon sequestration is the practice of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil where it cannot contribute as a greenhouse gas. When plants photosynthesize, they remove carbon from the atmosphere and convert it into biomass. Farmers can sequester carbon by planting crops that absorb more carbon from the atmosphere; using alternative tillage practices that allow carbon to remain in the soil; or planting cover crops to maintain carbon as biomass rather than releasing it back into the atmosphere through soil respiration.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/essex-farm-institute/PLants.jpgCover crop at Essex Farm, shown by Mark Kimball, An Adirondack Council Micro Grant Project

Another significant source of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions is methane from livestock and manure pits. In the Adirondack region, the number of both beef and dairy cows has increased between 2012 and 2017 as operations grow in order to remain financially viable. If this trend continues, farmers in the region with confinement dairies or confined animal feeding operations could consider employing methods of safely managing manure to avoid increased methane release.

The effects of livestock production can be reduced through extensive animal husbandry and grazing management. For example, farmers can employ rotational grazing to ensure that soils are not left bare and susceptible to leaking carbon back into the atmosphere. Additionally, to mitigate the release of methane into the atmosphere, technologies are available to cover manure pits or introduce anaerobic digesters to convert methane into energy. Finally, reducing synthetic fertilizers can greatly decrease the amount of N2O released into the atmosphere.

Uploaded Image: /vs-uploads/essex-farm-institute/IMG_0060 (2).jpgRotationally grazing dairy cows

While there are a variety of options available to farmers to mitigate the effects of climate change, barriers to adoptions of new technologies and practices are numerous. For one, financial stress in the Adirondack agricultural industry will suppress innovation and change. In 2017, about half of Adirondack farms experienced net losses. Another barrier to adoption - widely known to extension agents globally - is the challenge of behavior change. Farmers must have access to enough of the right information to convince them to change practices that have kept them in business while so many others have left the industry. In order for Adirondack farmers to realistically employ more of these practices, funding and innovative approaches to behavior change will be necessary to jumpstart the process.

What is New York State Doing to Mitigate Agricultural Effects of Climate Change?

Earlier this year, New York passed its historic Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CCPA). The CCPA mandates that the state reduces its carbon emissions by 50% of 1990 levels by 2030 and by 100% by 2050. The CCPA further directs the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to establish a climate action council. This council will help the state devise a scoping plan that will provide recommendations to drive achievement of the state’s newly mandated goals.

Because the council’s recommendations won’t be final for a few more years, it is unclear how exactly the agricultural industry in the Adirondacks will be affected. What we do know is that the CCPA expressly lists carbon sequestration and land use planning as necessary actions to achieve the state’s carbon emissions goals. Additionally, the CCPA authorizes the Department of Agriculture and Markets to promulgate regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The CCPA also allows the state to account for 15% of its emission reductions through carbon offsetting. Many of the agricultural methods described above may be able to account for these offset programs. Thus, we can expect the CCPA to influence regulations on permitted carbon emissions in agriculture. We can also expect the associated regulations to result in agricultural incentive programs to decrease emissions and increase carbon sequestration.

In addition to the CCPA, the New York State Soil and Water Conservation Committee offers a Climate Resilient Farming Program. This program offers grant funding to farmers in New York who implement waste storage, soil health, and water management systems that mitigate or adapt to climate change.

Further, earlier this year, Hudson Valley Assemblywoman Didi Barrett proposed a carbon farming pilot program as a part of the state’s Assembly budget proposal that would offer financial incentives to farmers who employ certain carbon sequestration practices on their operations. Finally, the New York Soil Health Initiative from Cornell University and Hudson Carbon are both nongovernmental efforts to research and educate on the effects of climate change on soil health. The emergence of these carbon sequestration programs in the state show a potential trend toward state-supported climate change mitigating practices in agriculture.

Conclusion

Change is afoot both for New York’s climate and Adirondack agriculture. While New York has begun to take measures to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change, there is more work to be done. Abundant untapped potential exists for improving agriculture as a driver of climate resilience and mitigation, and the responsibility for these improvements does not lie with farmers alone. With support from government agencies, nonprofit initiatives, and agricultural interest groups, we can support our farmers and continue working toward a stronger environmentally beneficial local food economy. 

You – the eater - can also make a difference. Help encourage farmers to choose these climate mitigating practices: pay attention to the carbon footprint of your food choices. Buy locally, minimally processed, whole foods produced by your neighbors.

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