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Climate change reaching north country farms

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The winds of climate change are blowing north country farmers into a world of both challenge and opportunity.

Climate change related to agriculture has been a hot-button news item as of late.

California is suffering from drought that will affect food availability and prices. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is establishing seven regional hubs, including one in Durham, N.H., to provide scientific information to producers so they can make decisions related to climate change.

Monsanto has acquired the Climate Corp., whose expertise is in data science, so it can provide recommendations based on risk. Coca-Cola and other multinational companies are paying attention to climate change because of past supply chain disruptions, including water, sugar and fruit juices. Ranchers in South Dakota suffered unexpected livestock losses in October because of a freak storm.

“Our climate is changing,” Allison M. Chatrchyan, director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Change, told a group of farmers who gathered recently at the Best Western University Inn in Canton to hear the latest on agricultural research. “We can trust how the plants are responding. This is starting to hit home for our farmers.”

In the Northeast, the average annual temperature has risen 1.8 degrees over the last 100 years, including a hike in the last 30 years of 1.4 degrees. Apple trees are blooming eight days earlier. The plant hardiness zones have changed. By the end of the century, the average annual temperature in the Northeast will be nine degrees warmer.

“That’s a huge increase in temperature,” Ms. Chatrchyan said. “It’s going to be warmer in all seasons.”

It also will be wetter, particularly in the winter, when the water is not needed for growing crops.

“That’s an issue to start thinking about,” she said. “When it rains, it pours. That is significant. We need to prepare our farms for these heavy rainfall events.”

The news is not all bad for the north country.

Climate change offers longer growing seasons, a chance to grow new varieties and the possibility of double cropping.

The growing season is a week longer than it was in the 1900s and the freeze-free season will be three weeks longer by the end of the century, Ms. Chatrchyan said.

On the downside, it also could mean that some cool season crops suffer and that there will be increased weeds, pests and diseases. Dairy farmers already should be thinking about ways to reduce heat stress on their livestock, which results in lower milk production.

Short-term drought, particularly in the summer, is possible, so farmers can consider irrigation or other ways of having water available when needed. They also should consider shifting planting dates to avoid planting in the spring or harvesting in the fall when soils are too wet.

The future also could see increased demands for mitigation, with potential credits offered for reducing nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer use, a greenhouse gas. The same kinds of reductions that could slow climate change — nutrient management, reduced tillage and energy conservation — can also cut farm costs, Ms. Chatrchyan said.

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