Thursday, February 20, 2014

Midwest Climate Hub to Help Producers, Coordinate Climate-Related Agricultural Research

Producers endure the weather across the Midwest and wonder if it will be too wet to plant, too wet to harvest, too wet to spray, or if the rain will come at the right time to produce a bumper or just an average crop. In all of the presentations I have given on climate and agriculture across the Midwest, during the last year the prevailing question has been about whether the increasing variation in precipitation and temperature we’re experiencing is the “new” normal during the growing season. Producers point to the last four growing seasons as examples of the variation they face each year: 2010 was hot and wet during the grain-filling stage of growth causing the crops to mature more quickly, 2011 was almost normal with some dry periods during the last part of the growing season, 2012 was a drought year, and 2013 experienced two different extremes. In 2013, it was wet in the early growing season, delaying and in some places preventing planting, followed by a dry summer.  Across the Midwest, the early spring rains are increasing erosion from fields. Producers are now asking what they can do to protect their natural resources and the crops that depend on them, and what the next season will be like. If these extremes continue, how do they adapt their farming operations?

And it’s not just the producers taking note: many members of our communities are wondering how these weather extremes are affecting their natural resources. The gardeners in our region are a great example. Gardeners have an awareness of the weather and are often concerned when the spring conditions cause early growth in their flowers, only to be harmed by a late frost. They know that the late frost damage to their fruit tree at home means that what they purchase at the local farmers market has also been affected.  Those who love Michigan cherries felt this pain acutely in 2012.

As we witness these shifts in climate and variability in weather, our questions become more specific: How will rainfall patterns and amounts shift? What temperature extremes are we likely to experience and how frequently? How will the duration and frequency of floods and droughts change? What will happen next year? In the next 5 years? In the next 20?

Fortunately, searching for answers to these tough questions has been my training and my profession for almost 40 years. I received my Ph.D. in agricultural climatology in 1975 from Iowa State and have spent my professional career in California, Texas, and Iowa working on the relationships between agricultural production and the weather and climate. For those who don’t know, agricultural climatology is the study of the interactions between climate and agriculture. The short synopsis of my personal research is to increase the resilience of agriculture to weather and climate extremes through understanding the roles of genetics, the environment and management and how they interact.  The long story is that my research has focused on all aspects of this relationship, from how to improve the efficiency by which crops utilize water, to screening cotton and wheat for tolerance to drought and heat, to trying to understand how yield variations within fields can be reduced by improving how our soils could store more precipitation, to parsing out the changes in weather and climate which cause variations in crop production. In the past eight years, I have the led the efforts on documenting the effects of climate on agricultural systems for the National Climate Assessment and am working on the development of indicators which could be used as signals of climate impacts on agriculture. For a person with my background and training and continued involvement in this area, this is an exciting time to see these efforts emerge which can directly impact agriculture.

Formation of the Midwest Climate Hub provides an opportunity to increase agriculture’s response to climate change and weather variability by coordinating climate-related agricultural research across a diverse array of regional partners. It also provides an opportunity to mold that science into evidence-based tools, educational materials and outreach activities. The Midwest is one of the most extensive and intensive agricultural areas in the world and is fortunate to be in a climate zone with moderate temperatures and a summer rainfall pattern that allows for production of many different annual and perennial crops. However, the Midwest still faces challenges in maintaining agricultural production due to climate change. Our goal in the Midwest Climate Hub is to provide information to support agricultural crop and livestock producers and gardeners as they make decisions around climate and weather to bring us the agricultural products that affect our lives, from the home gardens to the vast corn fields. I look forward to working with you on this challenge.

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