Warming may help Idaho farmers in short term

Rain can add a welcomed load of moisture to growing crops in the Northwest, but the explanation for varying amounts of annual rain is still debated.
Rain can add a welcomed load of moisture to growing crops in the Northwest, but the explanation for varying amounts of annual rain is still debated. Lewiston Tribune

Although most climate change predictions sound dire, there may be some benefits — at least in the near term — for wheat and cereal grain farmers in the Pacific Northwest.

Sanford Eigenbrode, an entomology professor at the University of Idaho and project director for the Regional Approaches to Climate Change (REACCH) team, said farmers in northern Idaho, central Washington and northern Oregon may see increased crop yields through the middle of the century due to climate change.

“We’ve done a good job in delineating how the yield projections are really not that onerous or problematic,” Eigenbrode said.

“The warming may produce more stressful heat days but on average with the (carbon dioxide) fertilization and warming our yields are expected, on average, to be steady or increase. So unlike other wheat-growing areas of the world, this region in the near term doesn’t look like it will experience major stress.”

For several years agriculture scientists, including those on the REACCH team from the U of I, Oregon State University and Washington State University, have been studying the likely effects of global warming on agriculture worldwide.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released a report stating that climate change is likely to impede progress on reducing undernourishment around the world. The report, titled Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System, identifies the risks that climate change poses to global food security and the challenges facing farmers and consumers in adapting to changing climate conditions.

The report found that climate change is likely to cause disruptions in food production and a decrease in food safety leading to local availability limitations and increases in food prices, with these risks greatest for the global poor and in tropical regions.

The USDA is recommending a set of voluntary programs and initiatives that are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. These programs span a range of technologies and practices that would increase carbon storage and generate clean renewable energy.

Kristy Borrelli, of Moscow, an extension specialist with the REACCH project, said food security is a huge concern that farmers struggle with every day.

“When you have fewer farmers but more mouths to feed it’s extremely challenging,” Borrelli said. “Add climate change, which will likely change production, and that adds another stress and further complicates any efforts there are to provide nourishing food to a large community.”

Part of the five-year goal of REACCH has been to study the potential effects of climate change on agriculture and work toward farming systems that are resilient to it.

For crops to adapt to climate change, Borrelli said it will require a larger focus on breeding and designing suitable crops for the environment.

There will also be a need for more conservation efforts, including building healthier soils and finding ways to reduce the stress that is happening to plants and the disturbance to the ecosystem.

“It comes down to natural resources management, which is equally as important as changes in breeding and variety,” Borrelli said.

Eigenbrode said farmers can expect periods when climate change issues will limit crop yields.

“So whether there’s a long-term projected climate change or not, there are going to be challenging years and we want to be ready for them,” he said.

One of the most challenging tasks for the regional team has been to educate and persuade the public — especially farmers — about the reality of climate change.

As an extension specialist, Borrelli said she has found most people are still resistant to the notion of climate change.

“It’s a controversial topic so a lot of people aren’t on board,” she said. “They are not opposed to changing — not because the issue is controversial — but more of, ‘What does it mean for me for day-to-day (operations)?’ A lot of things we’re looking at are so far down the line it doesn’t translate into what we do in the field.”

Eigenbrode also said he finds a fair amount of push-back from the public when it comes to accepting the reality of climate change.

“I understand the concerns about going whole hog into policy changes without being confident in the sciences — that’s important,” Eigenbrode said. “But I think the confidence in the science is strong and I think that it continues to show that it’s producing useful and reliable projections for us.”

When the REACCH project began in 2011, Eigenbrode said, 900 farmers in the Pacific Northwest were surveyed about their views on climate change and few accepted it.

The overall survey indicated that farmers in the region are adaptable and have adopted new technologies and continue to be innovative. But when it comes to climate change, 51 percent of those surveyed said they don’t believe humans are the primary cause.

That may be turning around slightly. Eigenbrode pointed to other national surveys showing an increase in confidence among the general public about the science of climate change. His team is working on a new survey to gauge whether attitudes have shifted among farmers.

He remains optimistic that people will eventually get it, especially younger people who are interested and eager to contribute to the solutions.

Through the REACCH project, 40 graduate and 60 undergraduate students from all three universities have been trained in climate change and its effects on agriculture.

“They’re thinking about the whole system because it’s the system that needs to be resilient to climate change,” Eigenbrode said. “So we’re going to need people who understand production from that whole perspective.”

High school teachers also have been enlisted to develop curricula focused on agriculture and climate change.

“I think we’ve set some good foundations for that work. So we’re creating a generation preparing to think about our production systems in that way,” Eigenbrode said.

“I’m optimistic. I am a scientist and I think we can find solutions as long as we’re willing to identify and think about the problems. We are not alone.”

Farmers on climate change

▪  A survey in 2011 of 900 farmers in the Pacific Northwest about their perceptions and attitudes toward climate change revealed that 80 percent have observed changes in weather patterns over their lifetimes.

▪  Thirty-six percent agreed that average global temperatures are increasing.

▪  Only 20 percent, however, said they believe human activities are the primary cause of climate change.

▪  Fifty-one percent don’t believe humans are the primary cause of climate change.

The survey also asked producers to gauge the level of risk posed by changes in various conditions pertaining to farm management and production.

▪  The majority, 66 percent, said economic factors such as cost of inputs and unstable crop prices posed the highest risk to their operations.

▪  In addition, 43 percent believed climate change policies posed a higher risk to their operations than less reliable precipitation.

NOTE: The Regional Approaches to Climate Change team is currently administering a second survey to gauge whether perceptions and attitudes have changed over the past five years. Results of that survey are not expected to be completed for several months.

Climate and economics in Idaho

Journalists from the Statesman, the Times-News in Twin Falls, the Tribune in Lewiston and the Post Register in Idaho Falls are examining the potential effects of a changing climate for the next six days:

Sunday: Idaho could be a refuge for businesses in a changing climate

TODAY: How climate change could alter Idaho agriculture

Tuesday: Changing climate will shift the way Idaho gets electric power

Wednesday: The effects on fish, wildlife and the economies that depend on them

Thursday: How the climate is shaping our range, forests and fires

Friday: How Idaho political leaders are responding to a changing climate

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