How farmers can fight climate change

Sunrise, June 27, 2021, during the heat dome. Water will likely become a limited resource as weather patterns become more extreme. (Photo courtesy Kate Steensma)

In late June, the temperature in Lynden reached 106º, smashing the previous record.

The cows on Steensma Dairy northwest of town got so hot that they chose to huddle in the shade of the barn, rather than heading out to pasture as they usually do on summer afternoons. But they were still too hot to eat, and at risk of losing milk production.

Fortunately, farmers are resourceful, and a quick $50 investment at Home Depot was enough to rig up a misting system to cool the girls off until they could go outside again. A few days later, temperatures moderated. 

If there had previously been any doubt that summers were getting hotter, this heat wave plus the conclusions of an international panel of scientists dispelled those doubts.

Climate change has come to farms in Whatcom County and across the world, and recent studies have shown that we can regularly expect hotter and drier summers, which will increase the stress on our land and already-stressed water sources.

Wetter and warmer winters will likely bring increased flooding and a reduced snowpack.

Fortunately, farmers here and elsewhere can be part of the solution to the current climate crisis.  

We know that agriculture is a key part of our local economy, and that the County government has drawn a red line of 100,000 acres of active farmland, below which the viability of our whole agricultural economy is threatened.

But there is another reason for preserving farmland: farms provide ecosystem services. Pastures, cropland, and orchards sequester carbon both in the growing plants and in the soil, preventing its escape into the atmosphere as heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Manure from livestock production is the best fertilizer to promote the growth of these crops — it is not only better for soil quality; it also saves the greenhouse gases that are emitted in the manufacture of synthetic fertilizer.

Farmland absorbs rainwater from winter storms much better than do the impervious urban streets and parking lots that replace working farms when farmers sell out to developers. 

If we are going to maintain and enhance the economic and ecological value of our farms, however, farmers are going to have to adapt to climate change.

There will be more heat waves, and not only our cows but also our berries and other crops will suffer stress again as they did this past summer.

There will be more competition for less water in the summertime, and since other users — tribes and municipalities — also require water, everyone will have to explore ways to use water more efficiently, farmers included.

If economic pressures make it harder and harder for farmers to earn a living, today’s farms will be tomorrow’s shopping malls and subdivisions, sequestering less carbon, allowing more runoff and flooding, wasting more water. 

How can farmers best benefit themselves and others in our fight against changes in the weather? The general answer is, practice regenerative agriculture, which Regeneration International defines as “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity – resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.” But regenerative agriculture encompasses only some of the ways in which farms can promote sustainability.

These include: 

Plant perennial crops (like our local berries and pastures) which, if farmed with low-till or no-till methods, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases released when land is plowed. Occasional tilling may be necessary to reduce weeds or fight soil compaction, but farmers can reduce the frequency.

Implement rotational grazing (supplemented by mowing when pastures grow too fast for grazing animals to keep up with the grass) to stimulate maximum pasture growth and carbon sequestration.

Use natural fertilizers, such as manure, rather than synthetic fertilizers made from fossil fuels. These improve soil quality and soil carbon sequestration in addition to reducing nutrient leaching and fossil fuel use. 

Cultivate a local market for our agricultural products. Farm stands, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, local restaurants, and farm-to-school programs all reduce fuel use for transportation as well as promoting crop diversity, itself a defense against adverse climate changes that might affect local crops. 

Use biogas from dairy production to generate electricity right on the farm. Manure digesters like those on the Vander Haak, Edaleen, and other local dairy farms can do this directly.

Or it can be fed into gas lines serving residential users, replacing fracked fossil gas that not only releases greenhouse gases, but also harms local water quality. 

Install wind turbines to generate electricity to power the farm and maybe sell the excess.

Organic Valley, a nationwide dairy cooperative that includes two Whatcom dairy farms, offers its members who install renewable electricity options to secure grants and low interest loans, as well as helping with design.

Participate actively in research to develop more versatile cultivars, including heat- and drought-tolerant varieties of local crops.

Local raspberry growers are funding such research in Lynden in collaboration with WSU, USDA-ARS, and Ag Canada. 

Find new crops that might be adapted to our area if it warms up a little. Cloud Mountain Farm Center now grows varieties of grapes that would not have flourished here even 30 years ago. 

Work collaboratively with local tribes, fisheries and aquaculture industries to protect streams, both to prevent loss of farmland to erosion and to protect our fish and shellfish industries.

Continue to improve water use efficiency. Whatcom Conservation District and WSU offer tools such as AgWeatherNet stations, which give real time data on rainfall and soil moisture in different locations to support decisions about when and how much to irrigate.

Encourage entry of new farmers when current owners retire or otherwise leave agriculture.

Farm incubators such as Viva Farms in Mount Vernon and Cloud Mountain Farm Center in Everson help new farmers with techniques, land access, and equipment sharing.

Organizations such as the Northwest Agriculture Business Center in Mt. Vernon support new farms in securing financing to grow and add value to their operations. 

Protect our remaining farmland from development by utilizing conservation easements when possible.

Many farmers are doing one or more of these things already, which bodes well for the future of agriculture here.

When the heat dome came in June, Hans Wolfisberg of Edelweiss Dairy between Lynden and Everson kept his cows in the shady barn after the morning milking, strategically watered some of his rotationally-grazed pastures in the late afternoon and let the cows out following the afternoon milking.

After eating their fill, they lay down in the cool, wet grass. There are many ways of adapting to extreme weather events and to climate changes in general, but as farmer and philosopher Wendell Berry points out in his 2015 book, “I know from as many reasons that the alleged causes of climate change — waste and pollution — are wrong.

The right thing to do today, as always, is to stop, or start stopping, our habit of wasting and poisoning the good and beautiful things of the world, which once were called ‘divine gifts’ and now are called ‘natural resources.’”

Farmers who appreciate divine gifts or natural resources can play a big part in stopping this wasting and poisoning. 

-- Stevan Harrell taught anthropology and environmental studies at the University of Washington for 43 years. He now lives in Bellingham. Katherine is a fourth-generation dairy farmer at Steensma Dairy & Creamery in Lynden.