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Prepare for climate change, experts warn farmers


WASHINGTON — While politicians argue about climate change, U.S. agriculture needs to prepare for it, experts said at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual outlook conference Friday.

Experts warned that farmers will have to change they way they do business, from better managing the of crops to considering changes in what they grow and even how much fertilizer or pesticide they buy.

And the change isn’t that far away. Surface warming in the Northern Hemisphere has accelerated since the late 1960s, equivalent to moving the earth a million miles closer to the sun, said David Gustafson, senior fellow for water quality and agricultural sustainability with the Monsanto Co.

Prospects for lessening the global warming effect are increasingly dim, Mr. Gustafson said.

“Agriculture will, in fact, be forced to deal,” he said.

While the effects from region to region are not crystal clear, experts said food-producing areas are likely to deal more with the stress brought on by heat and either too much or too little water. More extreme storms will increase the risk of crop losses, they said, and farmers will need to consider financial tools to ride out those years.

Some effects may be positive, they said. Production of critical feed crops such as corn is likely to increase. And New York researchers say warmer weather has helped boost production of certain wine grapes.

But forage crops such as alfalfa and grass — an important feed for grazing cattle — will be hurt by heat and moisture-related stress. And dairy cows could lose milk production as summer weather grows hotter, forcing northern farmers to consider investing in more cooling systems for barns, experts say.

Scientists are also warning about other potential effects, including spread of weeds and plant diseases to regions where they have been unknown.

And because the effects will be worldwide, trade patterns are likely to change as well, said Elizabeth Marshall, an economist with the U.S. Economic Research Service.

In New York, the trend toward warmer conditions could cost the state part of its advantage in the dairy industry: cool weather. Cows begin to experience heat stress when temperatures reach the mid 70s, and production suffers sharply as readings reach into the 80s and 90s.

“Dairy farmers could adapt to this by renovating barns with better cooling systems, but these costs would have to be weighed against potential risks and benefits,” wrote David W. Wolfe, a Cornell University professor, in a paper on climate change and Northeast agriculture.

In an email, Mr. Wolfe said northeastern New York could benefit from a warmer, longer growing season, allowing expansion of crops such as soybeans that have played a small role in the past. On the other hand, the region’s soil constrains development to some extent — rocky ground in parts of northern Jefferson County rocky already discourages corn, for instance — and facilities would have to be built to handle new crops, he said.

Agriculture is big business in New York. The state ranks among the top three in the nation in milk, apples, grapes and sweet corn, among other goods. Farm cash receipts approach $3 billion a year, Cornell University reported.

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