Weathering Change: Cornell CALS Helps New York Farmers Adapt
Climatic changes are disrupting the entire farm cycle, from forcing delays in planting to reducing yields when the crops do grow.
In the autumn of 2018, unusually heavy rainfall — almost 8 inches above the norm — interfered with harvests. The year before, a late spring frost killed off most of the strawberry crop. And the year before that, farmers experienced the worst drought New York has seen since the 1960s.
“I don’t want to complain a lot, because farmers have been dealing with this forever, but the frequency of these weather challenges has certainly gone up,” said Corey Mosher, owner of the 1,200-acre Mosher Farms, a diversified fruit and vegetable farm in Bouckville, New York. “I wouldn’t make a scientific observation, but I’d say you’re blind if you’re a farmer and you aren’t noticing these changes. I don’t know what a normal year is anymore.”
Sharp changes to the climate have forced farmers in New York and across the Northeast to adapt. Since the 1950s, the region has seen a 72 percent increase in heavy rainfall events that dump from 2 to 5 inches of rain in 24 hours. Sometimes that much rain falls in a single hour, threatening farmers’ fields and causing severe erosion of soil and the nutrients required to grow crops.
Climatic changes are disrupting the entire farm cycle, from forcing delays in planting to reducing yields when the crops do grow. Root damage, soil loss and increased contamination of waterways from agricultural run-off are among the consequences facing farmers as climate change accelerates.
“Farmers realize the climate is changing; they see it in the growing patterns and threats from pests and pathogens that they’ve never had to face before,” said Allison Chatrchyan, director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “We’re here to give them a better sense of what’s happening and what they can do about it.”
Shorter, warmer winters, combined with changes in soil moisture and drought have forced farmers to adapt to uncertain conditions. And more extreme heat and rainfall are expected. If greenhouse emissions continue to increase unabated, temperatures are expected to increase in the Northeast by 4.5 to 10 degrees by the 2080s, according to the National Climate Assessment. As farmers grapple with longer, more erratic growing seasons, they are vulnerable to enhanced risk of drought and intensified disease and pest pressure, said Chatrchryan.
Cornell’s Climate Smart Farming program (CSF) supports farmers in New York state and the Northeast to increase agricultural productivity and farming incomes sustainably. The program helps farmers reduce greenhouse gas emissions and boost resiliency to extreme weather and climate variability through use of advanced digital tools and best management practices. The team gathers stakeholder needs and input on their experiences with the climate, then develops resources and tools for farmers and extension specialists.
“Farmers here in New York are facing the unique challenges from both flooding and extended periods of drought. If we can help them identify impacts on their farm, and put in place new practices to increase their resiliency, then hopefully in ten years they will have avoided the most catastrophic consequences of climate change,” said Sarah Ficken, resource educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Madison County.
In the face of drought, many New York farmers have had their wells run dry, and have had to make extensive changes to their irrigation systems to create extra storage capacity and in some cases tapping into more reliable municipal water systems.
“We’re here to help. Our solutions come from listening to farmers and building on what they’re already doing by helping them figure out next steps, how to use more precise information to make informed decisions, and connecting them to specialists in different areas,” Ficken said.
CSF’s digital tools, accessible online, provide farmers with robust and actionable information as they make multiple decisions daily — from when to plant winter cover crops to how to assess freeze risks in the spring, and everything from specific crop hardiness to seasonal precipitation outlooks. With most of the CSF tools, any farmer from Maine to West Virginia can enter their address and field data to get outputs that are customized to their specific location.
For instance, in 2018, in the Finger Lakes region of New York, snow fell on the last day of April, while the next day brought summer temperatures. The erratic weather forced farmers to delay planting summer annuals, shortening the time between planting and first cuttings. Unpredictable weather compounds the risk as farmers grapple with decisions of when and what to plant.
The CSF Extension Team provides farmers access to agricultural specialists as they work to manage the risks posed by increasing extreme weather, climate variability and long-term change. Working in partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension and researchers at Cornell, the team draws on the latest science to answer growers’ questions about changes they can make to their management practices that will help increase resiliency and farm sustainability. During the summer of 2018, Sarah Ficken along with Tyler Brewer ’19, a CCE intern, visited more than 30 farms in Madison County, New York and held a twilight meeting at Mosher’s Farm to the CSF demonstrate tools and practices with other farmers.
The CSF tools are built on powerful climate data and modeling provided by Cornell’s Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC). For 36 years, the NRCC, housed in CALS, has been helping farmers and policymakers adapt to the weather. Led by director Art DeGaetano, professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, the NRCC monitors climatic conditions and shares its information with the public.
“At Cornell, we have this phenomenal strength to be able to combine long-term climate data from the NRCC’s with agricultural models to create cutting-edge and practical tools that allow farmers to access information about changes growing degree day accumulation, water deficit, freeze risk, and timing of cover crops,” said Chatrchryan.
The growing degree day (GDD) tool is a heat index that is used to predict when a crop will reach maturity.
Adding to farmers’ concerns, many of the crops that currently dominate the Northeast agricultural industry, such some traditional apple varieties, cabbages, or potatoes may no longer be well suited for the warmer Northeast climate predicted for this century. However, the CSF program also recognizes that the changing climate also offers profitable opportunities to experiment with new crops or new crop varieties.
Mosher Farms has been operating for 100 years, and Mosher is hopeful that they’ll make it for the next 100, too. The farm grows a wide variety of fruits and vegetables for direct marketing, along with approximately 350 acres of green beans for Seneca foods, and corn, wheat, malting barley and hops for the malting industry. They are highly diversified both in products grown and in distribution chains, which helps soften the blow when freak weather takes out one crop.
“A lot of the strategies Cornell is talking about with climate-smart farming — the cover crops, renewable energy, soil management — the benefit isn’t just in how you’re using your resources, it can also generate money or help save on costs,” he said. “I’m optimistic because we kind of have to be, as farmers. We have to be innovative, and that’s what makes it exciting.”
Jennifer Savran Kelly contributed to this report.
Climate Smart Farming tools and resources are available online at www.climatesmartfarming.org.