Event helps identify signs of ag ‘climate extremes’ on farm
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
COLLEGE PARK, Md. (Feb. 10, 2015) — By early May, Les Vough says the alfalfa that’s grown for hay in Maryland should be up to his hip in height. But, in recent years, the grasses that typically provide several cuttings throughout the season have only reached “knee-high, maybe” by spring.
Cloudy spring days with too much rain and not enough sun have contributed to the problem, making it difficult to get good hay out of the fields and into the hands of local livestock owners.
“The last six or seven years, across the whole state of Maryland, it’s been very difficult to make high quality hay,” Vough, a retired forage specialist with the University of Maryland Extension, said during a panel discussion on “Climate Change and Your Farm” at a conference hosted by Future Harvest, a Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.
Vough — whose brother has had to reduce the customer base for his hay by half because he can’t produce enough — said he’s seen the impact of a changing climate most acutely in a shortage of good hay in the region.
The good hay-growing weather this region enjoyed has moved farther north to places like Canada.
As weather patterns change, Vough sees the opportunity for farmers to adapt their growing practices — and he says the moment for change in the forage industry as fast approaching.
“We have warm season grasses that will fill that gap,” he said, noting new varieties of Bermuda grass that have developed the cold-hardiness to thrive as far North as Garrett County.
But, he added, “from the animal side, I hate to think of 100 days of 100-degree temperatures.”
That’s what William Lamp, associate professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology, said this region can expect by the end of the century based on the predictions of certain climate models. The region currently sees temperatures above 100 degrees about 30 days a year, but 2014 was the hottest year on record nationwide.
“How we plan for that is really difficult, because we don’t know exactly how it will turn out,” Lamp said, noting the differences among climate prediction models.
As an entomologist, Lamp’s focus is to help farmers better prepare for weather changes that could bring new pests and make Southern bugs more comfortable in more states.
“We believe there will be less precipitation in the summer with more rain in the fall or spring,” he said. “Having diversity on your farm will make you better able to weather these events.”
A changing climate can be even more problematic for growers of perennial fruit crops, like wine grapes, that can’t be replanted each year.
Paul Roberts of Deep Creek Cellars said his estate grapes are well suited to the cool climate of his Garrett County vineyard, but others haven’t fared as well.
The Pinot Noir vines he planted in Allegheny County in 2006 “seemed like a great idea when we chose it, but it’s gotten so much hotter there in the last two years,” he said.
For Roberts, turning grapes into value-added products provides a sort of insurance against weather extremes—and he encourages more farmers to try it.
Rachel Bynum from Waterpenny Farm in Virginia’s Rappahannock County said during the panel that she grows extra starters for annual plants in her greenhouse “just in case” of extreme weather.
“Extreme” is a good term to use, said Lamp, who once attended a climate conference in Arkansas where scientists and farmers struggled to agree on a common lexicon. He said even farmers that “don’t believe in climate change” could concur that they’ve seen “climate extremes” in recent years.
“Sometimes these terms become something larger than they seem,” Lamp said.