OUTSTANDING IN HER FIELD: Working around climate change

Margo Sue Bittner

Winter has made its mark for this year. We’ve been experiencing various snow storms and some frigid winds. This year, the storms have hit in February. Past years they have hit in January. Is this a sign of climate change?

Farmers view themselves as stewards of the land. They do everything they can to preserve and protect it. That is a large burden borne by only 2% of the population. However, when asked about climate change and its effect on agriculture, farmers take a practical view of the situation. Climate change happens. All of us are part of it; all of us can work to mitigate its effects.

Living here in Western New York, we may experience the effects of climate change less that others. Why? Two major factors that are vital to agriculture: Soils and water. Yes, that big waterfall in our county is helping to protect us. We also have soils that allow us to grow a variety of crops.

What are some observations about climate change from an agricultural view?

1. Our seasons are shifting slightly. We are having more spring frosts and later winters. Spring frosts can be a concern because once a plant blooms, a frost can kill the buds and that growing season can be lost. One example of this is apricots. Once the apricot sets its buds, frost can obliterate the crop for the year.

2. Precipitation is becoming more event-focused. While we have rain or snow on regular basis, farmers have observed that there are longer times between precipitations. And when they do come, they are more intense. This becomes a concern with drainage in fields. On the flip side, there are times when we do not have enough rain and irrigation is needed.

So, how do we cope with these changes? Cornell University actually has recommendations for what they call Climate Smart Farming. They suggest farmers focus on soil health. This involves testing for nutrients, adjusting how the land is tilled and increasing organic matter through cover crops, manure and compost.

Second, water management is vital. Both irrigation and drainage tile come into play here. Drainage tile has been used for ages on farms. We’ve even found some arched tiles made of clay in fields. They could be considered antiques. Also, farmers check the weather before spreading manure or fertilizer. Why spread something that will be washed away in a rain?

Integrated Pest Management is a third tool. That means literally counting insects before you spray and using other methods to control their spread. You might remember the column I wrote about the puffers we use today.

Two other areas would depend upon your specification for agriculture. One is diversification of crops. Farmers with crops consider crop rotation and even changing crops to protect the land. Livestock farmers work to reduce stress on their animals. Mitigating heat, maintaining fresh water and watching the diets of the livestock all are part of the mix.

Finally, farmers balance immediate needs with long-term planning. Remember, some crops take years to fully produce. Farmers also look at energy efficiency and precision farming techniques. In addition to Cornell University’s resources, the county Soil and Water Conservation district is available to help farmers maintain their land.

We can all acknowledge climate change. These are just a few ways the people who grow your food do their part to help the situation.

Margo Sue Bittner, a.k.a. Aggie Culture, has been involved in Niagara County agriculture for 40 years. She’s had experience in dairy farming, fruit production and wine agri-tourism. Ask her any question about local agriculture and if she doesn’t know the answer herself, she knows who to get it from.


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