A Farmer’s Guide to Climate Disruption

review by Maryellen Sheehan

climate-disruptionA Farmer’s Guide to Climate Disruption collects together Rebekah Fraser’s “Changing Climate” columns originally written between January 2016 through December 2017 for the now defunct Growing magazine. Fraser updated and expanded these articles with additional interviews for the book. Each chapter explores one aspect of climate disruption on agriculture through the lens of researchers, climate leaders, and growers across the country.

The book covers a vast span of material, beginning with a broad look at food security and communicating changes, before digging into soil, nitrogen management, water, and pest issues, and concluding with examinations of individual applications of climate-smart farming methods.

One issue Fraser threads throughout is farming’s dual role in climate change. Our food production decisions can both worsen climate disruption from field to global scales, but also provide a major path to mitigate disruption. Fraser also poses the dilemma of looking into the future where we don’t just face growing crops in a changing climate, but also 30% population growth by 2050. With our global agricultural land base nearly maxed out, reaching this production level is doubly a challenge, and building resilience in our food system even more critical.

In Chapter 1, “Weathering Climate Disruption,” Fraser begins with: “I like to think of climate disruption as an illness. There are symptoms (deluges, droughts, etc…), and there is the root cause (increased carbon released into the atmosphere). As with any illness, if you focus only on treating the symptom, you may find temporary relief, but you are unlikely to cure the disease. You and I need to address the cause.” She chooses climate “disruption” over climate “change,” a verbal switch former White House science advisor John Holdren has encouraged since the mid-2000s. “Disruption” feels more apt than change, emphasizing the potential turbulence of predicted increases in extreme weather events.

One dilemma that many books focused on climate change, including A Farmer’s Guide, leave me questioning, is how do new or small growers finance their shifts to more resilient systems? It’s very well to plan to “have money in savings to carry you through a loss year,” but working with farmers in a high-cost northeastern state, this seems an overly aspirational preparation step. Fraser starts to tackle this in chapter 2 on creating food security. How will the innovative farmers of today piece it all together to live up the optimism University of Nebraska’s Ken Cassman hit on in his 2014 comments: “I’m not so worried about climate change and agriculture, … simply because so many of the studies that look at the impact of climate on crop yields are based on models that don’t account for an intelligent farmer modifying planting dates, etc.” Yet it’s a different world to farm in now than a hundred or even twenty years ago. Even with the help of resources like those suggested in this book, how will struggling farms, trying to balance increased input and labor costs, waves of extreme weather, new pest and disease challenges, and tighter, more competitive markets build real resilience?

Fraser attempts to tackle this question in chapters 6 through 17 with examples and emphasis on the potential win-win nature of building resilience on farms. Chapters 8 through 10 cover soil health, cover crops, and no till before the next few chapters look at agriculture’s very singular problem of nitrogen emissions. Chapters 13 through 17 address many topic farmers are already familiar with—dealing with water, pests, diseases, and weeds in a changing climate. The farmers and researches profiled are looking to adapting their production practices to both buffer against climate disruption’s increasingly extreme weather events while bolstering their farms’ bottom line. Fraser’s chapter 7 “Prepare for the Worst: tips for recovering emotionally, financially, and physically” tackled the less examined topic of crisis and resiliency through the lens of mental health and community support, before finishing off with a preparatory checklist to help your farm prepare for an emergency.

A resonating theme through this core of the book Fraser raises on page 110: “At a time when agricultural research is more important than ever, … many breeding programs have been terminated.” From underfunded research institutions (or ones that are forced to take time from research to scramble for money for their work) to USDA and federal employees being banned from talking with reporters about climate change in 2017, there were repeated calls by interviewees throughout the book about the need for more research funding on these critical agricultural issues. Even Fraser’s impetus to write this book, the shuttering of long running sibling publications Growing and Farming: The Journal of Northeast Agriculture, is part of this loss—vital journalistic resources that brought research and news to farmers but were unable to keep going in the current economy.

Fraser wraps up by examining several climate-smart strategies, ranging from pollinator support to looking at post carbon farming, but prefaces these articles with a warning, “If some of the solutions prescribed in this book seem contradictory to you, you’re right. Every farm is different. Therefore, every solution will be unique.”

At its heart, this is largely what Fraser’s book is about. It’s not the prescriptive book of practices to incorporate on your farm that I imagined it might be, but rather a compilation introducing a slew of interesting concepts that serve as a jumping off point to go learn more. This book reads with a feel more like what it started as—a series of articles with some solid interviewing of farmers and researchers. Rather than pulling the reader through in one shot, or one sitting, it asks to be picked up and put down a few times. The articles begin from a broad set of starting points, but constrained by the length of a magazine, a couple of them left me wanting more, and some periodical-like repetition threaded from one chapter to the next. Fraser provides a solid bibliography and the resources to serve as a jumping off point to learn more. And in that push, this book more than succeeds—it spurred me to check out a library book and dig in to several of her suggested resources. If you are interested in climate change and want to see a glimpse at some bigger picture ways it’s being addressed across US agriculture, this book is an interesting read.

The challenges that I felt left with at the end of the book is from IFOAM’s Andre Leu: “We have a once in a generation chance to stop this. We don’t want to be the generation that failed our children and grandchildren. We don’t have to invent any new technologies. We just have to scale up good practices.”