Last summer was terrible for my crops. I eagerly started the process of sowing seeds and transferring seedlings and cuttings into their permanent homes and looked forward to the day I could begin harvesting the results of my hard labor. I was also in the process of renovating my home for sale and purchasing another, so working in the garden was a welcome relief from the stress and uncertainty of that process. At least it was supposed to be.
As I have written in previous posts, gardening has many physical and mental health benefits, and I have always found it to be a refuge from the day-to-day pressures of my hectic life, as well as a way to help my kids appreciate where their food came from and the labor that went into producing it. But this summer was different, because most of my time in the garden was spent fighting pests and disease. In the end, my harvests were not what they used to be; they were not as abundant, and the taste of some of the produce – especially tomatoes – was not as rich as it had been in past seasons. I knew that the problem was not my process. As always, I took care to nourish and prep the soil beforehand, to fertilize abundantly with slow-release organic fertilizers, to mulch, and to minimize my use of pesticides (I only use organic pesticides, but even these have harmful environmental effects). The problem wasn’t my process; it was the wet, miserable weather that brought on an abundance of attacks to my crops by caterpillars, whiteflies, and fungi.
After the move, most of my container crops died or arrived at the new place in a weakened state and failed to recover. That’s the sad reality of farming for most people who garden using conventional in-ground plots or uncovered containers: you’re at the mercy of the weather. This is one reason I’ve begun to garden using more of the techniques that protect your crops from unpredictable weather extremes. Some of these techniques are covered in our new online course – in development – “Container Garden Like a Pro.”
How is climate change affecting your garden or farm?
Lately, growing has acquired an added significance for me because I can see the effects of climate change right in my own backyard. The 2018 UN report on climate change contains an urgent warning about the urgency of global action to limit global warming to 1.5⁰C or less above pre-industrial levels. It warns that, among other risks, the risks to food security, including agriculture, marine biodiversity and fisheries, are high if warming remains between 1.5-2⁰C. For farming, that translates into higher costs for farming and dealing with the fallout of weather extremes and the problems they bring, including lower yields and more pests, which means using more chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and other crop modifications to offset those problems, which in turn harms human health and the health of the environment. These findings are echoed by the findings of the US Government’s National Climate Assessment report, published on November 24, 2018.
If you farm, whether as a commercial farmer, homesteader, urban farmer, or backyard gardener, you’ve already noticed the effects that climate change has been having on your crops. Maybe, like me, these latest reports on climate change and the recent environmental disasters that were caused or worsened by climate change - the wildfires in California, the earthquakes in Indonesia, Haiti, and Alaska, hurricane Michael in Florida and Maria in Puerto Rico, the deadly global heatwaves of this past summer-- really has got me thinking every day about climate change and what is being done to combat it, at the international and State levels. But what about at the local level? How can farming help mitigate the effects of climate change?
Can farming help reduce the impact of climate change?
For some people, farming has become a way to address the impact that climate change has had in their countries, communities, and homes. The numbers of people who have turned to homesteading have increased so much in recent years that some have dubbed it a “second green revolution.” Homesteading originally referred to a series of Government Acts in the United States, beginning in 1862, which allowed people to acquire ownership of land owned by the government or in the public domain. The modern homesteading movement is as much a frame of mind as it is a plan to settle a large tract of land. Modern homesteading can mean a lot of things, but at its heart are the ideas of self-sufficiency, reducing your consumption, and producing more of the things you need (for example, by cooking from scratch, growing at least some of your own food, turning to herbal remedies, using renewable energy, employing graywater and rainwater catchment technologies, and crafting useful things like candles and soap). These days, homesteading can be done on several acres of farmland or in an urban apartment.
If you are one of the many people who grow at least some of your own food, or aspire to do so, you might be interested in knowing how conscientious, small-scale farming, done mindfully and with knowledge of how to minimize the negative environmental impact of your farming while helping to reduce the effects of climate change. Here are seven things that conscientious small-scale farming can do:
Help prevent runoff
Planting more perennial crops in rotation (perennials seem to be able to withstand the effects of climate change better than annuals), constructing terraced gardens and grassed waterways, and contour farming (plowing and planting across or perpendicular to slopes, especially those that are prone to soil erosion) are all techniques that help prevent the erosion of soil and mitigate stormwater runoff, which brings pesticides, fertilizers, and pollutants flowing over the land and into bodies of water.
Urban gardens can help fight pollution. As a natural part of the process of photosynthesis (converting sunlight to energy), plants absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. But certain plants also have more specialized abilities to combat pollution. For instance, the roots of some plants contain bacteria that have the ability to break down contaminants in the soil or trap them in their fibers (as in the case of heavy metals that these bacteria can’t absorb). Green plants also capture particulate matter as the wind brings it into contact with sticky plant leaf surfaces.
Modify temperatures in buildings
Strategic planting can modify the temperatures in buildings (including your home), especially if you use permaculture techniques to integrate your planting with the surrounding natural landscape. Planting trees on the west and northwest sides of buildings (in most locations) provides respite from the summer heat in the mid-to-late afternoon, as does installing shade trees over patios, driveways and air conditioning units. Be sure to prune so as to avoid blocking your view, though. Plants (including edible walls, green roofs, and trees) also help relieve the “urban heat island effect,” cooling cities in hot weather by evaporating water through their leaves into the atmosphere (among other ways).
Reduce food miles
Although there is still a lot of debate about the wisdom and usefulness of eating locally sourced food over food that has traveled long distances, there is no denying that the more that demand for locally sourced food increases, the less demand there will be for food trucked or flown in from long distances, which will in turn result in fewer carbon-emitting vehicles transporting food to your local grocery, warehouse, or market.
It’s still difficult for farmers to get paid for their efforts at carbon sequestration (storing carbon in the soil to offset global warming), partly because there is still a lot of debate about how much carbon is actually being stored in the soil and plants. However, some tried-and-true techniques include adding organic matter to the soil, planting cover crops, and no-till or low-till farming, which basically means reducing disturbance to the soil. Whether and how much you’ll be paid for carbon offsets depends on the credit-granting organization you’re working with. The USDA’s free web-based tool COMET-farm can help you figure out which practices will save you money and net you some cash.
Reuse post-crop harvest residue as mulch
Mulching with your post-harvest residue increases the amount of organic carbon in the soil, improving its quality and consequently, the quality of your crops. Mulching in this way also helps keep this material out of landfills, thus reducing the among of greenhouse gases it produces. Finally, it helps prevent weeds and many pests, thus reducing the need for pesticides.
Use cover crops
Soil imbalance is one of the biggest problems plaguing the farming industry in the US right now and many believe that making even modest improvements to the quality of soil by increasing the amount of organic matter in it can offset most (or even all) of the carbon in the atmosphere. Improving the quality of the soil you grow crops is also, arguably, the most important thing you can do to ensure healthy, nutrient-rich and tasty produce. After your growing season has ended, plant cover crops like alfalfa, clover, or hairy vetch, all of which can fix nitrogen deficiencies in the soil and add other crucial nutrients.
Now more than ever, it’s crucial that we all play a part in reducing the effects of human-caused climate change. While a shrinking number of people continue to deny the effects of climate change – with some even ignorantly claiming that climate change can help farming – a growing number of people are becoming more aware of the urgency of taking action now. Growing some of your own food – using conscientious growing practices -- is just one of the simple ways you can help make a difference.
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