Thor Oechsner ’87 spent years cultivating a rich layer of topsoil essential to growing lush fields of organic wheat, rye and buckwheat. But it took just a few minutes for those years of hard work to be washed away when more than 5 inches of rain fell on his Newfield, New York, farm last summer.
Extreme weather events like the one experienced at Oechsner Farms are becoming more frequent and devastating, warned Toby Ault, assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
On June 10, he presented a Reunion Weekend lecture on extreme weather and its impacts on agriculture, held in conjunction with a Mann Library exhibit showcasing collaborations between the Cornell Climate Smart Farming program and New York state farmers.
In New York, warming temperatures will alter the growing seasons and the type of crops that can be farmed, with increased risks for flash floods, Ault said. In the southwestern U.S., the problems are likely to manifest as a severe and persistent lack of rainfall or prolonged drought spanning decades, known as megadrought.
“When we’re talking climate, we are talking averages and long-term trends,” Ault said. ”By the end of this year, we will have had five of the warmest years on record in just the last decade,” a consequence, he said, of using the atmosphere as a dumping ground for excess carbon dioxide produced from burning fossil fuels.
Ault pointed out that humans have long burned plant material for heat. Our modern world does the same, burning fossil fuels such as coal in order to spin turbines to produce electricity. The waste carbon dioxide produces during burning is then released into the atmosphere, and humans are now facing the consequences in the form of extreme weather events, Ault said.
A continued trajectory could lead to more common heat waves like the 2003 extreme heat in Europe that played a role in the deaths of more than 70,000 people. Agriculture will also be significantly disrupted as climates shift and crops struggle to adapt to more extreme weather, Ault said.
He said it is critical for farmers to access “predictions about the future on actionable time scales: It has to be a two-way street and dialogue between farmers and growers and scientists to be able to get that information out in the field where it matters.”
Oechsner and Mark Doyle of Fishkill Farms in the Hudson Valley presented remarks at a reception immediately following Ault’s talk.
Doyle described some of the challenges of growing fruit in an unpredictable climate. Following 2015’s extremely cold winter, the winter of 2016 was unseasonably warm, but two late-season cold snaps hit the orchard after the apple trees were ready to bud. Fishkill Farms responded by flying a helicopter over the orchard to try to draw warmer air down over the fruit trees to keep them above critical freezing temperatures. Doyle said he still lost up to 50 percent of his fruit crop this year.
Both Oechsner and Doyle are using their experiences to influence the way they farm in anticipation of more extreme weather to come. Along with other farmers collaborating with the Cornell Center for Climate Change and Agriculture, they have implemented an array of farming technologies to increase resiliency and limit climate impact, from installing solar paneling to adapting their cropping systems and using more cover crops.
Oeschner says he will do anything he can to “add and protect organic matter. As a farmer, I’m always thinking about the next guy and who’s going to take it all over. We can’t afford to be shortsighted.”
The lecture and exhibit were presented as part of Mann Library’s year of special programming on climate change, which showcased work being done at Cornell around the issue. The exhibit, which features stories of numerous farms across New York state, is on view in Mann Gallery through August.
Matt Hayes is managing editor and social media officer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Gwen Aviles ’17 is a student writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.