Farmers on the Front lines of Climate Change
Elizabeth Marks, Biologist, USDA’s NRCS
A Conversation with
biologist with the USDA’s NRCS & Owner, Making the Turn Farm
Elizabeth Marks is a biologist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in the Hudson Valley, NY. She works with farmers and landowners to improve soil health and enhance their land’s biodiversity.
She is on a special, one-year assignment in 2020 working with the USDA Northeast Climate Hub, a multi-agency effort to address climate change. She is developing a training program for USDA staff about the impacts of climate change on agriculture and ways that farmers can improve natural resources on their farm to be resilient to those impacts. Elizabeth is a certified Holistic Management Educator and has recently designed and built a net-zero, energy efficient home on Making the Turn Farm in Chatham, NY.
HUDSON RIVER FLOWS:
What are the most significant impacts that New York farmers are experiencing from climate change?
Most people know that the climate is warming – 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit globally since 1880. In New York that is slightly higher – 2 degrees Fahrenheit. While farmers may enjoy some benefits from this such as a longer growing season, what many people don’t know is that rainfall has also increased dramatically in the Northeast over the last 30-40 years. That is what is going to have the most negative impacts for farmers. Not only is rainfall increasing, but also the frequency of heavy rainfall events (above 2 inches) is increasing.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOA) has put together a report for each state that summarizes the changes that have occurred over the last 100 plus years.
Tilling the soil less or not at all improves its resiliency to climate change. The soil on the left is from an undisturbed pasture while the soil on the right is from a tilled crop field. The undisturbed soil has more organic matter and can hold more water, has more pore spaces so more water can infiltrate into it, and it runs off less. (credit USDA)
What specific advice are you giving farmers in the greater Hudson Valley in light of these impacts?
Farmers can implement climate-smart farming in a couple of ways. Some involve infrastructure such as irrigation, drainage, or high tunnels. This can be expensive. I want to offer solutions that improve a farm’s resiliency as well as profitability by improving natural resources.
The first thing to do is address vulnerable parts of the landscape such as highly erodible soils or frequently flooded areas. If farmers have had a crop field on a steep slope, we might talk about turning it into a perennial pasture or having more vegetative strips to slow down the water and improve infiltration. Or maybe they have some soils that are frequently flooded. We might have a conversation about that. If they’re losing a crop every one out of five years in that flooded area, that's likely to get worse. So maybe they want to go to a perennial system in that spot or convert it to wildlife habitat.
Cover crops, like this winter rye planted on a corn field, can capture solar energy when the main crop is not growing and improve organic matter. Cover crops also hold soil in place, improve infiltration, add nutrients, and are a food source for soil biological communities year round. (credit Elizabeth Marks)
What kind of perennial systems are possible for farmers in the Hudson Valley?
Pasture or hay is the most common. Some farmers are getting creative about growing perennial crops—flowers or shrubs such as elderberries or pussy willows. If they convert a crop field into pasture, good pasture management will be key. Letting the pastures rest and grow tall will increase the health and vigor of the plant while increasing organic matter in the soil. Animals then “harvest” the standing forage themselves.
What healthy soil looks like.
It is your belief—and science and the evidence tells us—that improving soil health is one of the most important practices a farmer can implement to be more climate-change resilient.
Improving soil health can make a huge difference in a farm’s climate resiliency. Increasing organic matter is crucial! It’s what's going to enable your soil to hold water during times of drought. It also holds onto nutrients better. Both clay and organic matter have a negative charge—it’s measured by something called cation exchange capacity—that attracts and holds nutrients.
The less you disturb the soil through tillage, the more you keep intact channels created by roots and worms, which helps improve infiltration. Also, the less you disturb the soil the more carbon stays in it. Too much tillage introduces oxygen, which causes the carbon to evaporate into air.
Other key soil health practices are keeping the soil covered to buffer temperatures. Bare soil can become as much as 30-40 degrees hotter than covered soils and this will stress out the plant. More water will be lost through evaporation and transpiration.
Having plants growing throughout the year helps too. Adding plants such as cover crops growing in the fall, winter, and spring can help you capture more solar energy, thereby recharging your soil. It also increases organic matter and helps feed the microbes and other living organisms in your soil.
The untilled soil (left) and the tilled soil (right) reacts differently when it come into contact with water. The tilled soil holds together while the untilled soil dissolves taking organic matter and nutrients with it. (credit USDA)
As a certified Holistic Management educator, what strategies do you use on your own farm property?
Five years ago I designed and built a New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) certified net-zero home. I wanted to invest in energy efficient practices such as spray foam, Energy Star windows and appliances, and an electric air-source heat pump for my heating and cooling. Solar electric and solar hot water eliminate the need for fossil fuels.
Surrounding the house, I have a small homestead farm on 10 acres. This gives me an opportunity to “practice what I preach.” I have a horse I graze on 3 acres. I rotate and rest my paddocks and stockpile forage – rest one area of grass and let it grow tall. This has the added benefit of letting him harvest his own hay and it gives the grass and roots the chance to grow really strong. Rotation and rest are very important, especially in spring when the grass is using the energy in its roots to come out of dormancy.
I also have a no-till garden where I plant a cover crop of winter rye and hairy vetch in early fall. In the spring I terminate that with black plastic placed over the beds in May. After the plastic is taken off, I plant into the residue, which acts as mulch. I add straw to thicken the mulch so as to keep the moisture in the soil and the weeds out.
I also manage my property to increase wildlife habitat. I created a small open water pond for ducks and frogs. I fenced off a corner of the pasture and turned it into a native wildflower meadow. I removed invasive shrubs, pruned my historic apple trees, landscaped with native shrubs and trees, and girdled some trees to create standing dead trees and improve shrub land habitat. Dead trees or snags become a host to hundreds of wildlife species from birds, to mammals, insects, etc.
Converting some land, especially less productive parts of the farm, such as flood prone areas and steep slopes, to perennial systems—perhaps native wildflowers fields—can attract beneficial insects, which can reduce pests and increase pollination. (credit USDA)
It sounds like you really enjoy enhancing your property for wildlife. How can other landowners get involved?
The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has several programs for farmers and landowners to implement climate smart farm practices or make wildlife habitat improvements. We have programs where farmers can get paid an incentive to try practices that improve soil health such as cover crops or prescribed grazing.
For farmed wetlands we have a program, the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), where producers can voluntarily take their farmed wetlands out of production and return them to a natural state while receiving a payment in exchange for a conservation easement.
We also have incentive programs for landowners to maintain habitat for grassland birds and to create shrubland habitat, as I’ve done on my farm. If a farmer or landowner is interested in learning more, they should call their local NRCS conservationist. There is one in almost every county in the country. You can find who serves your county by visiting:
A diversity of grasses and plants promote a pollinator-friendly habitat
Many of us assume that the return of farmland to mature forest in New York is all together a good thing. You have a slightly more nuanced take on that.
The amount of mature forest habitat in New York has really increased as farming has left the region. When refrigerated trains and than trucking started to ramp up at the turn of the century, farming moved out to the Midwest just because it's easier to farm on the prairie plains than in the rocky hilly areas of New York. A lot of farmland was then abandoned and the fields succeeded from shrubs, to young forest to mature forest. Contrary to what many think, mature forest actually isn't very productive for a lot of species.
New York grassland and scrubland habitat, which provides for a lot of food and cover for species, have really decreased as a consequence. The New England cottontail, for example, is a shrub land species that's in decline. NRCS has wildlife programs for landowners to improve grassland bird habitat and shrub land habitats.
The best way to create shrub land is to take a young forest and set it back in succession by removing the canopy. When we cut down trees we’re opening up sunlight to the ground. It is important to leave the trees on the ground so that it protects saplings from being browsed by deer. The downed woody debris also creates cover for a variety of shrub land birds. The resulting biomass (both decaying and growing) stores carbon in the soil.
You are careful to use the term “resiliency” rather than “mitigation” when talking about what farmers can do to respond to climate change. Why is that?
I'm focusing on resiliency rather than mitigation when I speak to farmers because I don't want to put another burden, another expectation, on them. I don't want them to feel like they're responsible for fixing the problem. I want to empower them to protect their farm first. That being said, most if not all of the climate resiliency and climate-smart farming practices that improve natural resources sequester carbon and reduce greenhouse gases.
Are you optimistic that we can have a positive impact on global warming?
Yes! Even though the changes that have already occurred are problematic and the projections deeply concerning, I am optimistic. We have created this problem, which means we can fix this. The US hit peak greenhouse gas emissions in 2007 and we’ve been declining ever since. Farmers can improve their soil now to increase their resiliency, which will improve their productivity and reduce greenhouse gases. It’s a win-win solution. It will mean abandoning business as usual but I think we are all ready for that.