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Changing climate? Adaptability key to success

For North Carolina farmers, mitigating risk is key in adapting to changing weather patterns.

Mr. McLawhorn, a past president of the North Carolina Agricultural Consultants Association, is a certified crop consultant and president of McLawhorn Crop Services in New Bern, N.C.

Farmers are accustomed to the weather making or breaking their livelihoods, but in the last several years they’ve been dealt even more challenging hands as shifting weather patterns have increasingly complicated their planting and harvesting seasons, impacting yields and income.

As with most things in life, adaptability is the key to success, the good news is there are indeed practical ways North Carolina farmers can navigate the risks presented by our changing climate.

Data supports the fact that our weather patterns are changing more dramatically. A quick reference of publicly-available information from the N.C. Climate Office and NOAA over the past 40 years shows that there has been a dramatic increase in rainfall volume at critical crop production times over the last 10 years as compared to the previous 30 years.

We’ve seen patterns of more rainfall in the Spring and Fall, as well, with an uptick in hurricanes and some small, but powerful, isolated thunderstorms. Springtime rainfall can impact planting and create poor field conditions during the growing season, and the Fall rainfall can have impacts on yields and quality.

The Fall hurricanes – Matthew, Florence and Dorian, to name a recent few – have wreaked their own havoc, in some areas decimating crops, particularly tobacco. The unpredictability over the last several years also complicates farmers’ ability to plan their planting and harvesting activities, and timing is everything in this industry.

North Carolina is fortunate to be able to grow a wide variety of crops, though they all react differently to our now-highly variable weather. In 2019, we experienced extreme drought in some areas through the middle of the summer, resulting in a mixed bag of productivity even within the same fields.

Even just a slight difference in soils can make a tremendous impact on the productivity. Unusually warm Fall temperatures often benefits soybeans, peanuts, sweet potatoes and cotton, but it typically negatively impacts corn farmers. Much of North Carolina’s corn crop was destroyed by 2019’s intense summer heat. More than ever before, amid the unpredictability of rainfall and temperatures, there’s a fine line between success and disaster.

Fortunately, North Carolina is home to some innovative farmers and researchers, and there are ways to mitigate the challenges our changing climate is throwing our way. One such opportunity is planting cover crops, which simply means planting crops that will cover the ground and protect the soil during the winter months.

Planting a crop in otherwise fallow land can improve the soil structure, reducing erosion and protecting the land for the next season, and even reducing soil compaction. As an added bonus, adding legumes as a cover crop supplies nitrogen to the soil that acts as fertilizer, reducing fertilizer costs the next season.

But cover-cropping doesn’t work for everyone. Sometimes harvest is so late that it’s not possible to get crops planted in time to allow for adequate growth. But when a grower can make it work, it can be well worth the effort.

In addition to thinking holistically about their crops and trying to plan for vulnerabilities of certain crop varieties and respective vulnerabilities, many growers are implementing a tactic that’s allowing them to be part of the solution to our overall climate problem. No-till farming, literally a practice where farmers leave the soil in its natural state rather than till it with heavy equipment, is proving to be a win for farmers, their wallets, and the environment.

There are many aspects of harvesting and planting that a grower cannot change, but land preparation is an area where we can have a real impact. Avoiding tillage means not using tractors as often, which means extending the life of machinery and saving costs and emissions from diesel fuel.

Some farmers have seen as much as a 50 percent decrease in fuel costs with long-term no tillage practices. This is also not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it takes persistence to make it work.

Crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes and tobacco, for example, require tillage. But grain crops and cotton, representing a significant share of opportunity in North Carolina, are especially adaptable to no-tillage practices. There are ways to make no-till work for many of our state’s growers, phasing the practice in over time, resulting in positive yields, lower costs and lower emissions.

There’s no silver bullet for farmers in helping them navigate changing weather patterns, and no one solution works for everyone in every situation. It’s complicated and highly-individualized to each region, each crop, each farmer, and every plot of land.

The one thing we know for sure is our climate is changing, and we’re seeing no signs of that challenge will be alleviated. We’ve got to farm smarter to protect our land, our food supply and our farmers’ livelihoods.

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Billy McLawhorn

The opinions of this writer are not necessarily those of Farm Progress/Informa.

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