Rising temperatures, along with the increasing frequency of false springs, heat waves, wildfires and water shortages, pose a significant risk to U.S. agriculture, according to a dire federal report on climate change released by the Trump administration in late November.
The report, compiled for Congress and the public by 13 federal agencies, concludes that “evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.”
But in that dire big picture of more extreme weather — wildfires, hurricanes and deadly heat waves — impacts vary geographically, and it’s hard to grasp what those broad trends could really mean for any given farm in terms of costs, necessary adaptations or new opportunities.
That’s a problem for farmers trying to make sound decisions about the future, said Clark Seavert, professor in the department of applied economics at Oregon State University, who studies the impact of climate change on Northwest agriculture. Over the past few years, he developed a suite of online decision-making tools to help growers assess their farm economics and finances, including the impact of climate change, that will be released for public use this month.
The free service, AgBizLogic, was born out of conversations with extension leaders across the West. Seavert partnered with OSU climate modeler Meghan Dalton to create the tool that aligns enterprise budgets with climate predictions and impacts. Dalton is a co-author of the recently released National Climate Assessment, as well.
The tool allows users to link budgets to weather forecasts for the upcoming season or climate projections for the 2030s, scaled to a county level, Dalton said.
“As soon as somebody sees the climate projections for their own location, it really resonates more,” she said.
The tool translates complex climate data from the Northwest Climate Toolbox — a collection of web tools for visualizing past and projected climate and hydrology in the Pacific Northwest — so that it can link to growers’ farm-specific information needs, Dalton said.
That’s a first-of-its-kind project, said Katherine Hegewish, a climate modeler at the University of Idaho who works on the Climate Toolbox.
“This tool is really novel in that it’s making these climate projections accessible to farmers,” Hegewish said. “This tool brings the big data down to a scale where they can see what the projections mean to them.”
To understand what the climate projections mean for growers, Seavert conducted focus groups with different crop producers, including tree fruit, livestock and cereal producers in the Northwest, as well as livestock producers in the Midwest.
The tree fruit sector told him they were most worried about increased fruit size and larger losses due to sunburn for apples. Cherry growers face higher temperatures that could damage cherry fruit quality and shrink harvest windows.
“To be honest, growers don’t want to talk about climate change, but they understand it; they see it happening now,” he said. “This lets them see how it affects their decisions, so they can be more proactive.”
The way the program works is that growers can enter their own operational budgets or use samples developed by regional extension economists. Then, they can select the climate variables most significant for their crop — from a wide list that includes growing degree days, first or last freeze dates, mean annual minimum temperature, cold snaps, heat waves, precipitation and evapotranspiration. That’s a lot more variables than most climate models have, based on what factors are most significant to growers.
The program then provides historic trends and projections under low and high climate change scenarios, so that users can see how heat wave frequency or chill hours will change for their farm. Then, they can input an estimate of how that predicted change will impact their yields, and the program adjusts all of their budgets to take that into account.
“It’s based on how the user thinks the weather will affect them,” Seavert said. “They know their operations the best.”
For example, fruit growers have told him that future climate scenarios could increase culls up to 40 percent. An adaptive strategy such as netting could prevent that, at a cost of $12,000 or so an acre. However, the netting changes other management factors, such as disease or insect control, so that must be factored into the budget as well. Conversely, if a grower has ponds and senior water rights, it might make more economic sense to continue to rely on overhead cooling than to install netting.
“So, there is this tie-in between climate, economics and finance,” he said. “That’s why I developed the tool, because it’s so individualized.”
The economic and finance outlook aspects of the AgBizLogic program will also allow users to explore impacts over 10, 20 or 30 years, to consider investment in risk mitigation strategies such as netting. •
Go to AgBizLogic.com to learn more. The program, to be released in phases starting this month, is free to growers. Developer Clark Seavert, professor of economics at Oregon State University, said he plans to offer trainings for tree fruit producers as well.
The climate models linked to the economic tools can also be found at the Northwest Climate Toolbox at climatetoolbox.org.
—by Kate Prengaman