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Seasons of Change: Climate and its impact on local agriculture
March 30, 2023
An old saying in Southern Illinois goes, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Regardless of how true the statement is from day to day, a common refrain throughout media and politics in the most recent decades has been related to climate change.
While movie and television portrayals of the dangers of climate change tend to lean toward the apocalyptic, as in major pictures like “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Snowpiercer,” the realities of global climate change are often much less cataclysmic and can be just as insidious in rural, agricultural communities.
“There are a lot of factors that are very relevant here in Southern Illinois,” said Leslie Durham, a professor of environmental geography at Southern Illinois University (SIU). “We’re predicting longer, warmer summers, but that may actually change some of the pest behavior as well.”
Durham said the earlier and longer lasting increase in temperature may allow the life cycles of pest creatures like ticks and other insects, which feed on crops or harm livestock, to extend exponentially, allowing them to be more destructive for longer periods of time compared to previous decades.
“There are several research articles that have come out recently claiming Carbon Dioxide (CO2) levels are somehow changing protein content or nutritional value in some of these crops. So in rural communities like Southern Illinois, where agriculture is important, I think some of these issues will have an impact.”
University Farms is a collection of farms owned by SIU and operated primarily by students and volunteers. Chris Vick, the director of the farms, said weather affects every aspect of the job and can be drastically changed with changing climates.
“Agriculture is about 80% weather, believe it or not,” Vick said. “You can be the best farmer in the world, you can do the best job and do everything right and still fail, and that has everything to do with weather.”
According to Vick, while measures can be taken to mitigate changes in temperature and precipitation, unforgiving and unseasonable long-term weather patterns can negatively affect growing and planting throughout the year.
“Over the last three years April has been a little drier and May has been our wettest month when typically April is our wettest month, and last fall was the driest fall I’ve seen in all my years in agriculture, ” Vick said. “So what we’re seeing is more extreme weather patterns and, maybe, longer wetter periods.”
Justin Schoof, director of the school of Earth Science and Sustainability at SIU, said these wetter weather patterns have also come into conflict with civil engineering intended to keep the Mississippi River navigable for transport of goods, resulting in increased flooding. Changing weather patterns have led some areas, including the river, to experience severe drought, but flooding is a real concern once the rains come in the spring.
“Over the years a number of dikes and levies have been built to kind of hem the river in, but as the rain has increased, that water goes into the river and the river has no way to go but up, leading to some of the large scale flooding we’ve seen in recent years,” Schoof said.
In addition to the increase in rain, the increase in and popular usage of formerly niche climatological terms and phenomena shows a trend toward more instances of extreme weather.
“It’s only been fairly recently that we’ve started hearing terms like atmospheric rivers, which are driving a lot of the rain in California right now, or polar vortexes or bomb cyclones,” Schoof said.
The increase in inclement weather also makes it difficult to find times to harvest or plant crops, according to Vick.
“What we used to talk about was planting season, now we’re talking about planting windows,” he said. “You used to be able to say, ‘in April, we’re going to plant corn.’ But now you might have had a seven day window when it was dry enough to do field work and if you didn’t get planted in seven days then you’re planting in June and you’re going to take about a 20-30% yield loss.”
He said the main way some farms have been able to adjust to this has been through the implementation of bigger, faster farming machines to handle the process more efficiently, though this can put a strain on the many small, privately owned farms across the U.S.
The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) printed their annual report on the assets, debt and wealth of the farming sector Feb. 7, illustrating an upward trend of debt in the sector and estimating an increase in debt for 2023 by 4.7% after adjusting for inflation.
“I would say you’ll see more disparity, especially in small farms. Larger farms or operations actually have the technology and the money to weather some of these things, so it’s really the smaller farms that are hurt the most and lack the labor, equipment and technology to overcome some of these issues,” Vick said.
Duram said it’s important to not allow the scale and gravity of climate change to paralyze people into inaction, whether on the individual level or broadly as a society.
“We need society-wide efforts and to do that we need people in positions of power to make the right choices and help us solve the climate crisis,” she said. “So the number one priority is to figure out who the candidates are and vote for someone who is willing to understand and take action to help us find climate solutions.”
She said small actions done to reduce emissions, like driving electric cars or using sustainable energy sources can make an impact on the climate crisis, but broadly reducing subsidies on fossil fuels will make the largest impact.
According to Duram, anxieties about climate change are as high as 68% among young people in the U.S. She said one of the best ways to combat the trend is to become personally involved in actions dedicated to fighting the issue through protests and community action.
“I think there’s a lot to be said about trying to incremental things to address the issue while also feeling like you’re part of a bigger group. After all, it’s young people who are protesting and trying to take action, so I’m thinking as you become more involved in politics and as more people become involved, we’ll finally see more change.”
Staff reporter William Box can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @William17455137. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.
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