NSAC's Blog

USDA Publishes New Resource to Help Farmers Adapt to Climate Change

December 2, 2016

Farming is an inherently risky business. On top of daily weather events, market fluctuations, land access, taxes, and expenses, the stress of climate change exacerbates these problems and serves to make agriculture even less predictable. Farmers and ranchers all over the United States are already experiencing the effects of climate change and severe weather events, and this variability is only expected to increase in the years ahead.

So this begs the question– what can farmers do to maintain their livelihoods and America’s food supply in the face of a rapidly changing climate?

In response to these pressing concerns, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a new report to provide farmers with preparation strategies, coping mechanisms, and recovery actions to acclimate to climate change impacts. It will ultimately serve as a key resource for educators and advisors as well as farmers and ranchers. The report, titled Adaptation Resources for Agriculture: Responding to Climate Variability and Change in the Midwest and Northeast, was published by USDA’s Climate Hubs for the Midwest, Northeast, and Northern Forests.

In 2014, USDA created the National Climate Hubs program to collect data, scientific studies, and climate projections to gauge the effects of climate change on the environment. USDA maintains seven hubs–Pacific Northwest, Southwest, Northern Plains, Southern Plains, Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast–and three sub-hubs–Caribbean, Northern Forests, and California. According to USDA, “the hubs are intended to help maintain and strengthen agricultural production, natural resource management, and rural economic development under increasing climate variability by providing guidance on technologies and risk management practices at regional and local scales.”

For this report, the regional climate hubs assembled authors from different USDA programs, including the Agricultural Research Service (ARS),  the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Forest Service, in addition to conservationists and climate scientists.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and our members believe that by giving farmers the tools they need to invest in their soil and actively adapt to and mitigate climate change, we can develop effective strategies that work for farmers, the environment, and the economy. The report published this week provides an important overview of key adaptation and mitigation strategies to achieve that goal, and below we highlight key findings from the report.

Climate Change is Already Affecting Northeastern and Midwestern Farmers

All across the country, climate change means warmer temperatures for longer periods of time, in addition to more frequent and stronger weather events. As the report points out, the Northeast and the Midwest are experiencing more rainfall than ever before­, with the Northeast’s precipitation having increased by 70 percent since the mid 20th century.

The report digs into the climate change-fueled problems farmers are already facing. Extreme weather events, heightened precipitation levels, flooding, and warmer temperatures all have the potential to directly damage crops, soil health, and critical farm infrastructure. Warmer temperatures and resulting droughts can degrade soil moisture content, and ultimately lead to lower yields and poor quality outputs.

The report also highlights the impacts of increased pests pressures and diseases. Changing climate patterns allow invasive species to grow and outcompete fields of crops. And with milder and shortened winters, both destructive insects and pathogens are set to become stronger and to cover a larger ground, impacting crop and livestock production across the country.

As we have previously reported, the impacts of climate change will cost taxpayers billions of dollars, but our nation’s farmers and ranchers have an enormous opportunity to mitigate these effects through conservation practices that sequester carbon, improve soil health, and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. At the same time, farmers will have to rapidly respond to the increased pressures from a changing climate, and the report highlights the key linkage between these two strategies.

The Linkage Between Adaptation and Mitigation

The report points out that climate change adaptation ­– a form of increasing resilience by reducing the impacts of these weather events– and greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation – an action that actively seeks to reduce noxious carbon and other GHG emissions to reduce harm to the environment – are separate concepts. However, the actions needed to address these two goals can often be one and the same. For example, using cover crops helps retain soil moisture content and prevent erosion (an adaptation strategy) while also increasing the soil’s carbon sequestration (a mitigation strategy).

Adaptation can require immediate responses, based up on daily weather events, in addition to planning months or years ahead to prepare for ever-evolving patterns and obstacles. Both are equally important to consider and can often work in tandem such that “short-term initiatives can inform longer term strategy through a ‘learn by doing’ approach,” as noted in the report.

When presented with constant fluctuations both daily and annually, it is evident that farmers will not be able to continue their practices under the status quo. The report presents two adaptation options: maintain but adjust current practices or change over more completely to a sustainable agriculture approach.

Adaptation and Mitigation Strategies for Midwest and Northeast Farms

As highlighted in the figure below, the adaptation and mitigation strategies presented in the report are not meant to be at odds with a farmer’s production motives and needs. Additionally, the act of reducing a farm’s risk to climate and weather-related damage can often provide critical ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration.


The report also identifies eight broad strategies to respond to a given climate change impact. Within these overall strategies, USDA lists different approaches to actually implementing these strategies. And finally, on a more minute scale, different tactics are presented to guide farmers on how to adapt to a given approach and make an on-the-ground change at the right time and place using the correct tools.

The eight adaptation strategies include:

  1. Sustain fundamental functions of soil and water
  2. Reduce existing stressors of crops and livestock
  3. Reduce risks from warmer and drier conditions
  4. Reduce the risk and long-term impacts of extreme weather
  5. Manage farms and fields as a part of a larger landscape
  6. Alter management to accommodate expected future conditions
  7. Alter agricultural systems or lands to new climate conditions
  8. Alter infrastructure to match new and expected conditions

For example, the first strategy of sustaining “fundamental functions of soil and water” includes approaches for maintaining and improving soil health and protecting water quality. For improving soil health, the report highlights tactics such as reducing tillage, planting cover crops to reduce erosion, and diversifying crop rotations. These tactics, along with others among the eight strategies, can often be supported by voluntary conservation programs through USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS).

For instance, NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) provide assistance for the adoption of key adaptation and mitigation practices, such as cover crop adoption, residue management, conservation crop rotations, and agro-forestry.

Last year, NRCS invested an additional $72 million through EQIP to support conservation practices that advance the agency’s Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture, including those that promote soil health and carbon storage. NSAC hopes to see the next Administration invest additional funding for mitigation and adaptation through EQIP practices, as well as CSP, which provides comprehensive conservation assistance and can play a key role in supporting farmers as they adapt to a changing climate.

The report closes by detailing on-the-ground implementation of adaptation strategies on four different types of farms in the two regions. While targeted to the Midwest and Northeast, these adaptation strategy case study examples will likely be useful reading for farmers in all locations. Continued support for adaptation and mitigation practices will be more pressing than ever in the years ahead, and this new report sets out an important roadmap for key strategies and opportunities to support farmers and ranchers at the front lines of a changing climate.

Categories: Conservation, Energy & Environment

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