Climate change is affecting many people, including—and perhaps especially—farmers. Whatever affects farmers affects crop futures and other food-related investments, so it’s important for businesspeople and investors to understand how farming is faring as the climate continues to change.
However, the complexity of the data and predictions using it can keep non-scientists from making sense of what to expect. For farmers, this has been particularly frustrating, as climate scientists have generally agreed for a while now that farming practices are going to have to change, but how do farmers adapt to that?
The question of how is going to be a while coming, but there is some help, as researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have found a reliable way to convert scientific data into something more easily understood: field working days.
“Everything else flows from field working days,” said ecologist and study co-author Adam Davis. “If you’re not able to work, everything else gets backed up. Workable days will determine the cultivars, the cropping system, and the types of pest management practices you can use. We’re simply asking, ‘Can you get in to plant your crop?’”
They’ve been able to figure out how many field working days will come in a given season or year, which can make it easier for farmers to figure out what they need to do in order to prepare. They’ve also noted that as the climate continues to change, mid- to late-summer droughts will intensify, which can cause problems with crop yields.
From their research, they’ve determined that the current planting window for corn will no longer be workable because April and May will be too wet to work the fields.
“Going forward, we’re predicting warmer and wetter springs and drier, hotter summers,” said Davis. “The season fragments and we start to see an early-early season, so that March starts looking like a good target for planting in the future…We’ve already seen the trend for early planting. It’s going to keep trending in that direction for summer annuals.”
The question then becomes, how will crop insurers react to climate change?
Although it makes sense to move the first planting earlier in the year, the risks of doing so can be potentially catastrophic. If farmers plant early in order to harvest their crops before the late-summer drought, they may encounter frost or heavier precipitation than expected. But they may take a big loss in doing so if crop insurers believe they planted too early.
“It will come down to whether crop insurers will move planting dates earlier in the spring. They’re going to need enough years of empirical evidence that this early window exists before they are likely to make that change,” Davis said.
The researchers suggest planting early with long-season cultivars to maximize yield potential, hoping that a pollination window will open up before the drought kicks in. Or they could choose shorter-season cultivars, which they could plant early and harvest before the drought. Finally, they suggest that farmers and researchers “create cropping systems that can deal with increased volatility by conserving soil moisture,”—that is, move from reliance on yield stability under current conditions to creating plants that are drought-resistant.