Climate Change Could Alter Farming Landscape in the U.S.

If 2019 is any indicator of what is to come, then producers will need to adapt their practices to climate change.

The impact could change production levels depending on the region, with some states becoming less productive, and others will see little to no change.

In an article published by the USDA for their magazine Amber Waves, they found a correlation between climate change and agricultural productivity. Changes in temperature and precipitation can have different effects on crop and livestock production. For crops, the Oury index is a measure of aridity and rainfall with regards to temperature, which is an effective indicator of climate conditions and crop growth. Heat stress to livestock fertility, weight, and feed efficiency are measured with a Temperature-Humidity Index. It found that “changes in THI (Temperature-Humidity Index) and the Oury index varied by U.S. region.”

The map below shows the potential impact on ag productivity, assuming a 2-degree Celsius temperature increase and a one-inch decrease in precipitation. The TFP, or “total factor productivity,” accounts for both production and the cost of inputs like seed, irrigation, fertilizer, labor, equipment, and other factors.

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The USDA states that some states have gradually adapted to the changes in average climate conditions over time and have adopted, “technologies or practices that can mitigate damage from adverse weather.” While average changes in temperature and precipitation may not have severe impacts on productivity if they fall within historical fluctuation ranges. In contrast, “unexpected weather shocks, such as severe droughts that fall outside the range of historical weather fluctuations, have more significant impacts on regional productivity.”

While the above is true, it appears that the USDA is avoiding some of the underlying causes of these fluctuations. In an article written by Helena Bottemiller Evich for Politico, the “topic has historically been too politically toxic in the traditionally conservative agriculture sector, which fears more regulation while also being extremely reliant on government programs.”

The same article also points out that the USDA currently is spending less than 1% of its budget to fight climate change. Bottemiller Evich theorizes that the reason could be the current administration’s hostility towards discussing climate change. She states, “When new tools to help farmers adapt to climate change are created, they typically are not promoted and usually do not appear on the USDA’s main resource pages for farmers or social-media postings for the public.”

Farmers and ranchers could be a major player in the effort to reduce climate change. Currently, there are USDA climate hubs that were established to assist farmers to deal with “weather extremes” (climate change) that are operating on a shoestring budget. There are studies by the government stating that, perhaps, we should pay producers to sequester carbon by changing their tillage practices. What if private companies paid producers?

These ideas will be discussed in the next few posts as they merit talking about them in-depth. Agriculture could be the solution and not the problem as people may perceive.

 

 

 

 

 

Terroir, Landrace and Identity Preserved Could they be a value-added marketing tool for farmers?

Several weeks ago, I was conducting an interview with Peter Schott of Genesis Feed Technologies regarding their app for selling soybeans to animal feed producers in Asia. During our conversation, Schott mentioned that soybeans grown in North Dakota have a higher crude protein that buyers wanted. Schott’s desire was to have farmers recognized for this quality and receive a premium for their product. During our conversation, the concept of terroir occurred to me.

Terroir, aside for being the buzz-word for wines, is the concept of a sense of place. It is the unique environmental qualities of the soil, weather, variety selection and farming practices that make a product distinct from others. Not only is this concept applied to wine, but it has been applied to cheese, coffee, chocolate, tea, hops and wheat. Commodity Grains, a company in Oakland, California is applying the concept of terroir to the pasta it produces but under the label of “Identity Preserved” (which I will describe below). The company lists the pasta variety, where it is grown and the specific farm. It may sound like a gimmick, but according to Dr. Stephen Jones at the Washington State University Bread Lab, wheat varieties and growing conditions do contribute unique flavors. When conducting tastings with bakers, chefs and random people, they notice differences in milled 100 percent whole wheat describing such flavors as “nutty”, “earthy” and “chewy.” The concept of terroir in pasta is also being applied to wheat grown in the Abruzzo region in Italy with a pasta line called “Primo Grano” or first grain.

Perhaps terroir is just a clever marketing tool as some believe. There are instances when a seed or plant originated in one area but was perfected in another area of the world. Take the case of the Zinfandel grape. We never knew its origins until recent DNA testing revealed that it is most closely related to a grape variety from Croatia called, Crljenak Kastelanski, before that we thought it was the Primitivo variety from Italy. The only knowledge we had was that a Boston nursery advertised a grape variety named Zinfandel in 1830 and it made its way west to California during the Gold Rush. Today some of the best Zinfandels are produced from Sonoma County and the Lodi area of the Central Valley. In the case of wheat, a variety called Red Fife originated in the Anatolian region of what is now Turkey and was planted by Dave Fife in 1842 on his farm in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. It is renowned for being a fine milling and baking wheat. Most bread wheat grown in Canada owe part of their genetic lineage to Red Fife.

Although they originated in another region and perfected in another, there is some genetic variability that allows it to grow and adapt under a variety of growing conditions. More specifically, it is called a landrace or what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) describes as “a plant with historical origin, distinct identity and lacks formal crop improvement, as well as being genetically diverse, locally adapted and associated with traditional farming systems” (more in the case of Red Fife, but I would argue that Zinfandel could apply). The term landrace when broken down, is “land” or the ground the crop is grown on, and “race” which in biology means “distinct population within the same species.” The FAO further defines landraces into two categories: primary and secondary. Primary landraces are crops that developed through what is termed as in situ grower selection and not subjected to formal plant breeding. They can be either autochthonous or grown in an original location developing its unique characteristics through grower selection; or allochthonous, an introduced crop locally adapted and has developed its unique characteristics through grower selection in another region (such as the case with Red Fife). A Secondary landrace is a crop that has been developed in formal plant breeding but is maintained through repeated in situ grower selection and seed saving. Due to their adaptation, farmers will use these selections with other improved varieties due to factors such as lower cost, hardiness to local conditions, disease resistance, and culinary preferences. Although this defines landraces in a broad context, what if this concept could be applied to other crops? While there are landrace crops still grown around the world, farmers are planting cultivars for such factors as high yield, drought and disease resistance, and other factors for commercial production.

There is another program that perhaps could be a step-up from landrace and could be used as a marketing tool to not only preserve crops with their own unique characteristics but give farmers the recognition for their product. It is a USDA designation called Identity Preserved. It is described as, “a voluntary service that provides participating companies with independent, third-party verification of the identification, segregation, and traceability of their product’s unique, value-added characteristic.” The Northern Food Grade Soybean Association is trying this program for its soybeans grown in North Dakota.  According to Ken Bertsch, N.D. State Seed Department Commissioner, it is a program that “preserves the genetic and/or physical identity of a product by providing traceable identification of a field crop from planting, production, storage, handling and delivery of the product.” The program has requirements such as having seed source verified, planting after other crops (specifically after GM crops), inspections for genetic and varietal purity and keeping those soybeans in a separate area of a handling facility. While it may be labor intensive for farmers with added extra paperwork or confuse consumers with another label on the package, it is one more thing for farmers to be recognized for their products and meet consumer demand. This could work in conjunction with landrace seeds as consumers are growing aware of where their foods come from.

The difficult parts are these types of tools is consumer awareness, scalability and whether people are willing to pay a premium for these types of products. As far as price, consumers are willing to pay extra for organic foods or products with the “Non-GMO” label. As far as scalability and awareness, it is up to the agriculture industry if they want to implement programs such as these for the potential of being recognized for producing a unique or superior product.