Adapt our farms for Climate Change: Mission Impossible?

In this blog post, Théo Lenormand, PhD Student at the Countryside and Community Research Institute, discusses how long-term holistic thinking can be the key to farm adaptations in the face of climate change.

Climate change is happening, and farmers are witnessing its effects.  Some are direct, like wetter and milder weather for Wales. This has been accompanied by increasingly extreme weather events, sometimes at unexpected times. It has direct consequences on the running of the farming system (fodder production down, crops unable to be harvested, no grass left, infrastructure damage). Not as obvious are the indirect effects, climate patterns change all over the world which can impact large producers of some of our outputs and inputs. This leads to boom-and-bust cycle markets and, sometimes, supply issues. Finally, farming is reliant on fossil energy to operate most of its tools (including electricity).

Not every British farm is equal. The landscape farms are located in, their access to this land or the pre-existing farming system directly constrains possible adaptations and opportunities. And this range of possibilities has been further reduced through 50 years of farm specialisation and the implementation of the 20th century agricultural revolution*, incentivized by the successive iteration of agricultural policies.  These developments have locked farms in evolution pathways; integrated farms in global value chains and weakened the farming system link with the existing environment’s potential.

I have spent three years conducting farm interviews in the UK and France. From these conversations about past and present farming systems, I have gathered that those living and working on farms have access to a range of extremely valuable experiences which will allow them to cope with the uncertainty ahead.

Dairy farm at dusk in winter, the sky is light blue with purple clouds, the slurry is steaming and the barn is lit by an orange light. One cow is stood near the barn.

Figure 1: Dairy farm at dusk in winter, East of France.

All types of farm infrastructure needs to be climate-proofed
(By the author, near Lure 2019).

First, farm infrastructure needs to be improved to make it climate-change proof (Figure 1). This means being able to cope with extreme weather events such as during drought and periods of extreme cold or wet. Such changes may include improved water supply systems, de-frosting systems, appropriate drainage, sheltered slurry/muck storage and treatment systems, and large and flexible enough buildings in case the housing season overruns. Building in those margins (not taken into account by the market) would be a massive win, improving animal and farmer welfare and contributing to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Field infrastructure and management will need to evolve as well, if only to avoid damage and the loss of an ecosystem and a production tool. Soil structure and fertility might be a helpful focus. It would call for a rethink of farmland management, for grazing, we may see a shift to rotational grazing, mobile water troughs, diffuse winter feeding or path reinforcement. Above all we will need to rethink the rotation logic to match it with the environmental potential and the risk component. Heritage rotations of mixed farming managed that perfectly well (as pictured in figure 2), finding a balance between ploughing/soil conservation, maximizing soil cover and using modern selection techniques to build in resilience (at the cost of yield).

A diagram which shows the rotation logic and complementary fodder production through the year. The most demanding crop is grown first, followed by less demanding crops and then periods of grazing.

Figure 2: Rotation logic and complementary fodder production through the year, tools of resilience (By the author)

Dropping specialisation, at least regionally, would also help in improving the sustainability of farms through reducing inputs use and replacing them by a greater reliance on biological cycles, for example the nitrogen or carbon cycles (Figure 3).

A diagram of the nitrogen cycle in the ecosystem.

Figure 3: Nitrogen cycle in the ecosystem, farming needs to use biological cycles to the maximum extent possible (By the author from Cours ORIA)

Enhancing “living” infrastructure has a part to play with soil structure, fencing, tree lines, hedges and walls that are extremely versatile (acting as windbreakers, providing shade and food, and acting as a biosecurity measure) supporting the farming system’s resilience (Figure 4). 

Overall, climate change’s impact means that we will need diversity on farms to buffer shocks. Diversity in the rotation, in farmland use, would be one element and would lead to triple wins. For example, building up soil structure and carbon is very important for grazing in wet conditions as well as for water retention, while building the fertility renewal in the rotation would reduce fertilizer needs and arable farming on livestock farms is a substitute to bought-in feed. Diversifying the land use with different spaces; orchards, grazed woods or meadows would help buffer extreme weather events with different dynamics of production (over the year) complementing other parts, plus it would allow other products to come out of the farm. Building on those would help mitigate the indirect impacts of climate change on farms. It will definitely not be efficient in terms of work productivity and won’t be solved by new machinery, but it reduces input needs and diversifies output produced.

Fenced trees with green and orange leaves stand in a field. In the foreground, there is a wrought iron fence.

Figure 4: While hedges are often put forward as green infrastructure, trees in a field can also bring benefits. Note the wrought iron fence that has been standing here for 50 years.
(By the author, near Cambridge 2021)

Inputs wise, further progress might be made by favouring refurbishing and converting existing machinery; this re-localisation can reduce supply chain issues. For a net-zero future, favouring farm’s electricity production, or using waste products from our urban society such as digestate waste, shredded paper and sewage waste as feedstuff, bedding or fertilizer substitute are existing options. These options would reduce imports and limit energy consumption. Combined with rotations we have the opportunity to reduce our dependence on volatile and increasingly insecure imports, even on proteins.

Another way of sheltering one’s business from violent shocks in the markets (both for inputs and outputs) can be to secure a contract for outputs and locking-in prices of inputs, though power imbalance amongst the supply chain reduces interest in these options, particularly during long crises. Indeed, oligopolies in the processing, retailing and inputs supply sectors of the supply chain hold a dominant position compared to farmers. A second option is to pair up as coops or groups of farmers to change the power imbalance in the agri-food supply chain, but also to pair-up on implements, infrastructure, and fieldwork to make things compatible with (networks of) family farms. In the UK the track-record of those solutions is nuanced. Many chose to diversify their retailing channels and to process their agricultural products (which can clash with the main output from the farm but benefits the farm from increased diversity in the long-term) or add side-activities out of farming (electricity production, tourism), hence buffering against a crisis on meat or milk markets.

Finally with tougher operating conditions, some land is changing. For example, chronically overwhelmed drainage is rendering fields inadequate to crop or to graze. Farmers will have to face some problems. If we want long-term systemic options to gradually tilt the ecosystem and market processes in our favour in front of climate change, we need some slack in the human system as well as in the land system in order to face the unknown (Figure 5).

Cows and their calves graze in a dry field, backed by trees.

Figure 5: Dry spell in the French region of Cantal.
The pasture still has some fodder available for the cows with calves at foot. Diversifying production and fodder resources, while having some margins in the system, allows farmers to deal with extreme weather events
(By the author, near Maurs 2018)

Every farm, from landlocked farmers to new entrants, has a role to play. Their mission, should they choose to accept it is to secure our food supply, mitigate the impact of climate change on farmland and play a part in reducing it. All of this, while maintaining a viable business and participating in thriving rural communities in tumultuous water. Does this sound extremely challenging? It is. Therefore, we need a guiding mind and the right policies to accompany farms but for now, while dark clouds gather we must do what we know works, limits costs and risks.

*The 20th century agricultural revolution covers a range of transformation gearing farming towards increased outputs per acre and per worker through, for example, the increased use of capital and inputs; the moto-mechanization of farming, and the use of fertilizer.

This article is based on extensive fieldwork conducted during the realisation of 5 agrarian diagnosis (Cochet, H., (2011)), 2 in France (Normandy and Cantal areas) and 3 in Wales (Pembrokeshire, Bala area and the Vale of Clwyd).

You can follow Théo on Twitter and read more about his work on his website.